Talkback (Part 2)
Richard Elen's fact-extraction mission with engineer Phill Brown reaches its conclusion.
Richard Elen concludes his discussion with top engineer Phill Brown
At the end of last month's article, we discussed the problems of massive multitrack operation with 46 — or even a mere 24 — tracks. Sixteen is a more 'comfortable' size, but even here it's possible to find yourself producing a very mechanical mix, moving this fader up here, this fader down at this bar, without actually hearing the music at all!
PB: You must have fallen into that 'rough-mix situation' as well, where you do a rough mix at the end of the session, and it's great, apart from one little thing, and you spend three to four hours on the mix trying to get it better. You'd do a mix and listen to it, and it'd be not quite right, it would be missing something, and that something was on the rough mix and you'd spend your time trying to get the mix to match the rough one. Rough mixes can often be really good. You try to get a performance mix: you can do it the other way, and get something that's 'perfect', it might even sell a lot. Yes, I know what you mean.
RE: It doesn't have the right kind of feel.
PB: Three hours for a mix, I like to have as a fair average. Often, some mixes, you've got something complex that takes it over that, but three hours on one song is, for me personally, enough. You're either going to get it or you're not. I have done eleven hour mixes, and at the end you really don't know if it was better than the one five hours ago.
RE: You've often made a lot of use of outdoor effects, particularly the things when I was around. I think of Murray Head's Nigel Lived for example... you really have a good knack of mixing in recordings off the street, that sort of thing. I remember recording Portobello Road one Saturday for you on a Uher...
PB: Yeah, for Weaver's Market, with Blondel. I still like to do that. I had a portable Sony I used to carry around, a little hand-held one with a built-in mic, I used to use that and dub it up to 7½. That's been used, again, with people like Robert Palmer and Blondel. I've got about 20 NAB reels of stuff at home, with bizarre conversations and sounds on them. A lot of it is just for fun, and can never be used, but I like to use outdoor sounds. That Walter Carlos thing, it's a few years old, Sonic Seasonings, I enjoyed his combination of Moog sounds and outdoor sounds. He took it, obviously, to extremes, but I still like that kind of effect. Murray Head's album is probably the basic one where the sounds that were happening were a very important part of the track. Something was 'with us' 'cos they just worked out, well. We'd find that we'd come in and cut the best sections of a sequence together, record it, and when we played it back with the track it fitted exactly. Everything appeared at the right places. That made our job easier; it could have been a nightmare. But that's the album where I've most used that kind of effect.
RE: I had a thing like that recording vocals outdoors: the birds in the trees were picked up by the vocal mics and came in just at the right points.
PB: Again, with the John Martyn stuff recorded outside, it attracted the geese and swans that lived around there, and there'd be like no-one around, at that time of the day, or night. We thought: 'Now's a good time to do this track', the general hubbub of the day'd died down, and we had a couple of great bins and horns going off across the lake in different directions. Within about ten minutes of setting up and working, the ducks and the geese and the swans would all come up on the embankment and just sit around, with these sounds coming out. There'd be the odd squawk or noise, and a couple of those came at fantastic points. But they're really one-offs — you get very few chances to do that. I've never had the chance to do something like the Murray Head album since we did it... 1972.
RE: It was quite a long album.
PB: Yes, one side was 25, the other was 27 minutes, which in a way blows out some people's theories about it being 18 minutes a side maximum. A few years ago it was 24, but nowadays most record companies like to keep to 18.
RE: Maybe record companies don't like to spend out as much on studio time.
PB: Yeah, there must be some kind of logic in it somewhere, I suppose. I mean I know you can get more volume and clarity with a shorter side; but we didn't have any real problems with the 27. We didn't do too bad; it does hold up for wear. A bit of strangeness comes in at the end of the last track, but it's so strange anyway you can't really tell. But that was long. The album came out at the wrong time, or the wrong record company, or something. Maybe it's not quite as good as you and I think!
RE: It's a classic example of an atmospheric album. It all follows through, it flows along, and tells a story too.
PB: The album really did just fall together. It wasn't a hard album to really work on, it wasn't a hard slog getting the music or anything. We used to go out for a day or something, to get effects, like the train sequence, and we found that everything pretty well fell into place. We worked on the album in the way the album is, when it came to mixing, so we'd end up with a track that ended in the right way for the next one to start from, if you know what I mean. It wasn't like twelve songs and then you put them in order for the album; we already knew the order.
RE: How do you think the kind of music you like to do has changed over the years? How do you reckon the scene has gone?
PB: A huge question, really. The kind of music I like to listen to, it varies. It's pretty wide. Ry Cooder I get into a lot, I'd like to work with him... I listen to a fair amount of reggae, some of the old Wailers stuff...
RE: And Van Dyke Parks?
PB: Oh, yes, Van Dyke Parks. The Discover America album is one that still holds weight. It's too much. You can't put it on and say immediately: This was recorded in such and such a year, or whatever. It doesn't date. It's quite a strange album all on its own. But I'll leave what I like... it's such a long subject. The way it's changed? Well I think in the last couple of years I've been working on projects that I'm more interested in, because I can choose what I want to work on, rather than working for a studio, where, like at Island, everyone has a fair amount of say but you often at some point get a session that you really don't want to have anything to do with, which I don't think's good for anybody, for me, the client, anyone. You do as much as you can, but unless you really believe in it then you shouldn't really be working on it. So I can now do things that I enjoy doing without worrying if it's going to make it or not, a lot of them don't but... Well I mean this year, at the moment, I've been working on projects that have been fun and I've wanted to do. I enjoyed last year, but the Winwood album was a long album. I mean I loved working with him, he's been like a hero of mine for years, but it took six months, and that's a very long time to spend on six songs, and it could have been done a lot quicker. I'm sure everyone involved would probably admit that now. He was on virtually an unlimited budget, and with unlimited time. That can be great, for most of the time you believe it could be great, but when you actually get it I don't think it's good for the artist. I like working under some kind of pressure. When everything's going real easy and too smooth, then you should worry sometimes. I like to have that 'edge' of trying to get something recorded that the musicians are really hot on, that's my kind of edge. I don't like being pressured into: 'You've got three days to come up with a single.' I don't like that, but it's always good to work under a certain amount of pressure.
But the music business has changed, a hell of a lot. I've always tried to be out of the business side of things, and be purely involved in the recording side, in the studios. I don't like the environment of record company offices. You know what I mean by that. There's crazy situations where you get one record company that gives £100000 for an album with a particular person, and then will give only an £8000 budget for somebody else. Obviously they have more faith in one guy than perhaps something else, but their extremes are so extreme. I don't think you really get any better results, sometimes, from £100000, it doesn't actually bring you in an amazing album. That's the thing that pisses me off. There's a lot of money about in the business these days but it's very tight, if you know what I mean. In certain situations there seems to be an endless flow of money, for certain artists. Then for a lot of other bands, particularly lesser-known people, the budgets are very tight, specially for a first album. That kind of strain I don't like. I'm one of those at the moment where the budget's quite tight, and I've just come from working for the same record company on three projects where the budgets were huge.
RE: Record company policy seems to be to back certainties, and take no chances with any new talent.
PB: Yes, there's been a lot of new acts come through lately, but mainly in the New Wave. Companies have jumped on to that, it seems. They seem to be very willing to employ and sign up New Wave, but then I'm prejudiced... but there's a lot of good things that have come out of the New Wave, it's true.
RE: Like Elvis Costello?
PB: Yeah, like the fact that he can go and record a couple of hit singles at Pathway and dub them on to 16 and finish them off, or whatever he did, for an incredibly small amount of money, so I've beeen told. That's great, and he's had some great sounds, and there's been some other good bands come out of it all. But there's been a lot of dross.
RE: In a sense it's been like reggae, where it's been leapt on and commercialised and lost the original meaning.
PB: Yeah, that's right.
RE: How about live stuff? How do you feel about live-versus-studio albums?
PB: Live albums, when they come off, they're fantastic. Immediately comes to mind the live Wailers album, I suppose 'cos I did it, and I happen to like it, but that all fell together. It was a great night. It was just recorded, you know, then it was mixed in four hours, and that was it. It was a great buzz, and a great album. Joni Mitchell as well, at the New Vic, was a similar kind of situation, with Tom Scott and the LA Express at that kind of era, about three or four years ago, I think. They were just well-organised gigs, they went smoothly. I did some Rainbow gigs, In Concert for America, like five nights, and we were recording five bands a night. That got really crazy because there were all these people, about six on stage to change the mics around in the hall between the acts as quick as possible, chaotic. But I like live gigs. I enjoy doing them.
RE: What do you do if you get a band in the studio who say: 'We won't do this 'cos we couldn't do it live?'
PB: Well, this happened in the summer, I did this No Dice album, Steve Smith again was producing, and it was very much a studio sound we were working on, because I'd never seen them live, and no-one had ever really made clear that they wanted that kind of live sound from the band. So they came in, and adjusted to the studio, and we got a very 'studio' sound, quite beefy, but I saw them live about three, four nights after we'd got the basic tracks down, they played at the Marquee, and they were just amazing. We threw a lot of what we'd done out of the window. They came off stage and I said, 'I wish I'd heard you before we went in the studio.' We then went and recorded four songs in a live situation. Very few screens, but enough — I still wanted control — but in a live sense, everyone setting up and playing as they would on stage, rather than how they thought they should in the studio. Live vocals, the lot. And at Christmas-time we recorded the Shakin' Stevens and re-formed some of Sounds Incorporated — that old sixties group, Alan Holmes and so on. We had eighty people in the room, an audience, to get an atmosphere going. We didn't use any screens at all, just set up live. You can hear the album, it's totally live and only just under control. It has a great atmosphere to it. If a band are better, or the style of music is better in a live sense, then I do it in the studio in a live way, or if they're doing a gig, I'll try and get them a gig and do it there. The new Jackson Browne album, Running On Empty, a lot of that is recorded live, and you wouldn't really know it to start off with, it's very much under control. To be able to do that, put over that kind of atmosphere with that kind of clarity, it worked very well for him. I'd use a live situation more for rock'n'roll bands more than that kind of thing, though.
RE: Do you regard albums and live gigs as separate kinds of thing?
PB: Oh, yeah, they are separate. It interests me what a band does live, and it's always good to bear that in mind, but when you're in the studio, if the material feels as if it should be treated a certain way, and it's different to how they'd normally do it live, or could do it live, that wouldn't stop me from going ahead. I do see records and live things as totally separate.
RE: A final thing: is there anything you really want to do, now, like an ambition in the field, so to speak?
PB: Really more with people I'd like to work with. One I mentioned, Ry Cooder, he interests me, that whole band. And something that's really in the mind: Lennon is sitting on his ass in New York somewhere, and hasn't been working for a couple of years; it'd be nice to work with him, I used to dig a lot of what he was doing, I think he can do a lot more than just hide away. They're the kind of people I'd like to work with.
Things I'd like to do... I don't know. I'm doing producing and things like that, basically I think I'm happy, I'm best equipped as an engineer, and producer or co-producer on things. I don't really want to just become a producer and stop engineering, because that for me, to sit and tell somebody else what to do, is not really my idea of what a producer should be, so I'm quite content, in a sense. In a sense... I don't really look too far ahead, two or three months is about all that I can cope with at a time. The last two years I've been in the studio about 18 months out of 24, and when you're in that you're only really thinking about the album you're doing. There's a couple of studios I'd like to go to, to work in, to check out, there's a new studio in Kansas... and Criteria, 'cos I like the things that are coming out of there. There's about four or five studios that I'd like to go to. But I've no huge ambitions like having my own studio. I'd prefer to let somebody else have the problems.
At this point the people involved in Phill's session began to wander back into the studio one by one; I thanked him, and quietly packed away mic and cassette recorder, leaving him to the rest of his open-ended session.
Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)
Interview by Richard Elen
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