Jethro Tull's main man takes us behind the fish farmer exterior and into his home studio.
What do salmon farming and Jethro Tull have in common? Ian Anderson, whose experiences range still further, is the answer.
Ian Anderson is a Scottish salmon farmer, as well as an engineer, producer and a former professional studio owner. He now has his own 24-track at home where he records all his music and even masters for CD. As such he's got very particular opinions about the studio world and recording techniques. And, oh yeah, for the past 20 years he was also very active in a band called Jethro Tull.
Ian Anderson makes a wild gesture, takes his pipe out of his mouth and says, 'I'll very happily go out on a limb and say that in the long term you cannot succeed in the studio game. People go into the recording business because they like the fun of it and it's their life, but it's a bit like farming. It's not something you will ever do because you want to get rich. It's a mug's game, it does not equate with making a return on a capital investment. It cannot be done. All you will ever do is hopefully have an inherent real estate value in the property that you are operating. In other words, if you want to start a studio: buy the right piece of property in the right part of town, that's where your only potential profit lies.' Anderson sucks his pipe again, pulls his chequered shirt and grins. It's certainly not a bitter, disillusioned man speaking here. That was clear straight from the moment we entered the drive of his holiday cottage just outside London. Behind a long blind wall we find a large country house, surrounded by lots of greenery, fountains and riding fields with several horses. It's the place where he has his home studio and from where he deals with the machinations of the record industry. On the other side of Britain he owns a large section of the Isle of Skye, where he's got a big fish farm. He commutes regularly between these two places, although he admits that he has recently spent a lot more time down in England, because he's in the middle of recording the follow-up for the remarkably successful last Jethro Tull album Crest Of A Knave.
For years Jethro Tull was almost a dirty word amongst music critics and they were generally seen as the most uncool band around. Until the end of 1987. For reasons which also mystify Anderson, the tide suddenly turned. Crest Of A Knave sold almost twice as much in its first year as any of its predecessors in the UK and worldwide, adding almost a million to the 28 million sales of previous albums. On top of that, the 20th anniversary of the band was greeted with respect, rather than ridicule, as was expected, and the five-record box set commemorative album, 20 Years Of Jethro Tull, which Chrysalis released halfway through 1988, was placed amongst the list of recommended albums by Q magazine. The rehabilitation of Jethro Tull seemed complete.
Anderson shrugs his shoulders when asked what he thinks of it all. He has cultivated a very thick skin when it comes to the press - he probably doesn't even allow positive feedback to come through anymore. He makes some general remarks like, 'The public is probably bored stiff with this sterile and mechanical-sounding music which is fashionable today and looking for music which has a live feel to it and where feel and skill are important,' and he adds that Jethro Tull has always had a low profile, being a band of the second division in terms of public appeal and he'd rather keep it that way. He only grants interviews very rarely, and this one was given only because of his enthusiasm for home recording. 'I would like people to know that what I'm doing is only just a little bit above what they are doing at home themselves.' More about which later.
Ian Anderson's musical career started in the early sixties when he played guitar in bands like The Blades and The John Evan Smash. In 1968 he founded Jethro Tull, together with guitarist Mick Abrahams. Anderson had swapped the guitar for the flute, in itself already unusual, and made a name for himself with his one-legged stage jumping. With the second Jethro Tull album Stand Up, released in 1969, Anderson took complete control. He appointed Martin Barre as the new guitarist, wrote all the songs and laid the foundations for what was to become the typical, instantly recognisable, if ever-changing, Jethro Tull style. The two years following were very, very successful for Tull. They had several hit singles and the albums Aqualung and Thick As A Brick (both released in 1971) are still regarded as classic albums today. The latter disk and the followup, A Passion Play, both 45-minute long, epic musical poems, started Anderson's controversy with the press, which generally seemed to think that the music and lyrics were overblown and pretentious. In Britain the row was to last for 17 years.
Despite the press's devastating reviews and feedback, Anderson and his band, of which the line-up seemed to be changing almost yearly, continued making successful albums and doing world tours, if less in the limelight than before. Anderson remembers this period in the early and mid seventies as 'very rootless. For years I only lived in hotels. I didn't even own a flat. All I had was a couple of suitcases and my instruments and making records was a thing of: now it's time to do this and having pressure on again. So around 78 I decided to buy this house and build my own recording studio in London.'
Anderson sold the Maison Rouge Mobile studio which he'd built up over the years and started an identically named studio in a derelict warehouse in South London. Within two years Maison Rouge Studios was one of the leading London studios and was even making a profit. Why then these pessimistic sounds about the studio world which went before? The fish farmer sighs, 'I sold my studio around 1982 because I saw it coming that all the original equipment that had gone in would be unfashionable within two or three years. At the time we had huge MCI desks and multitracks, but you could see that they would quickly be no longer the latest thing, without actually becoming technically redundant. The SSLs and digital were coming in. It became very threatening to realise that we might have to invest something in the region of £500,000 to re-equip both studios with new gear. And there was no way that I was going to make that kind of profit in a couple of years.
'The balance was tipped by what the owner of one of America's most longstanding studios said when he got out of the business after 20 years, completely disillusioned. He said, 'It's a waste of time as a business. All you ever do is chase your tail, spend more and more money to try and keep your business alive'. You spend every penny you earn on new equipment and your chances of ever making money in the long term are pretty well zero. The only people who can ever make money out of recording studios are people who can save money in another way - ie it would make sense for a record company to own their own recording studio.'
Today Maison Rouge still appears to be a very successful studio, seemingly defying Anderson's words, as do, of course, many other studios. Yet Anderson had more reasons to stop with the studio game. He recalls, 'I also sold the studio because I wanted to get into fish farming and needed capital. And then the home recording market started to come of age. Prior to 1980 there wasn't too much in terms of home recording equipment that was really viable in the sense that you didn't need a full-time team to look after it. There was nothing that was professional enough to master on but not so complex that it wouldn't be expensive and daunting to operate.
'And then there came this magic time, when there were mixers and multitracks which could be used at home and were both affordable and workable. This was a revolution to me, having been an owner of a professional studio, that I could actually make a record using something where the cost of all the equipment necessary was only going to be say £80,000 as opposed to the normal £250,000 of acoustical work and equipment. So for 25-30% of the original costs you could do the same things quality wise.'
Thus Anderson bought himself a Soundcraft 2400 desk, an Otari MTR90 24 track multitrack, and Tannoy SRMX and Visonic monitors. They're still in his home setup today, together with a Yamaha Rev 7, AMS reverb, two SPX90s, two DBX165 compressors, four Drawmer DS201 Dual Noise Cates and an F1 for mixdown. The last two Jethro Tull albums Under Wraps and Crest Of A Knave, plus Anderson's 1983 solo album Walk Into Light were recorded and mixed here, with Anderson himself engineering. Engineering seems to have become a passion for him, rather than the necessary evil which most songwriters seem to find it. This passion shows when a remark is being made about studio monitors, mixing at home and creating a standard reference. Anderson suddenly grabs a yellow foamed headphone, lifts it high in the air and calls, These are the best monitor speakers in the world. It's a Sennheiser HD424, a no longer made model of which I still have four pairs. Everything here is recorded and mixed on headphones. These are Tannoy monitor golds.' And he shakes his head with a look of disapproval when he hears that many people find it difficult, if not impossible to mix on headphones: 'That's probably because people don't have accurate headphones. It's unbelievable what's sold under the name 'headphone' these days. And one of the big advantages for me of mixing on headphones is that I don't have to spend £20,000 to make this room acoustically flat. These headphones are acoustically very flat and are very reliable. When we mix, we often sit here with the four of us, all wearing one of those and nobody has to worry whether he's hearing the stereo panorama alright. And I do of course use the Tannoys and the Visonics for continuous reference.'
Anderson continues with his lecture on recording techniques and what he's learnt from working on his own in his home studio: 'Before Walk Into Light I wouldn't have been able to record an album without an engineer. After 15 years of recording I only knew a little bit about recording techniques and how the average mixer operates. I didn't really understand. Walk Into Light was in many respects a learning experience. I learnt to handle this equipment, I learnt to work closely together with somebody from a musical point of view - I co-wrote most of the material with keyboard player Peter-John Vettese - and I learnt to deal with all these new electronic toys like drum machines and sequencers. After that we did Under Wraps here, which was mainly drum machines and synths and sequencers, too. That technology had become established for home recordists and to ignore it would have been a mistake. Examining these possibilities and what they would mean to us was something we felt we should do, but I don't think we got an album out of it that was important for us. I think we all look back on it and feel that it was quite good in terms of the songs and the way we did them, but the general feel of it was clearly not something we would want to pursue again.'
'But it's important to be able to experiment with different things. Having made records during '68-70 in the embryonic studios in London, when things were very primitive and the average engineer was probably less experienced than the average tape operator is today we were used to experiment. It was exciting because we were all finding out about and challenging many of the conventional recording techniques that had become convention through the BBC radio recordings and so on.
'I can remember when we were making our second album Stand Up that we were trying to get the same quality in the guitar sound as the shift you get with a Lesley cabinet for a Hammond organ. We tried playing the guitar through the Lesley but that didn't work. We wanted a real shift across the stereo. So the engineer, Andy Johns, the brother of producer Glynn Johns, had this idea of moving the mic around whilst Martin was playing. He got a very expensive Neumann 67 and was swinging it on the end of its lead around the studio over quite a big area (laughs). We were doing it live and it was an amazing sound which we used on 'A New Day Yesterday'.
'In those early days making a record was a really nerve-wrecking experience. You had to try and nail a track, or even two, every day. It was a very pressurised activity and it wasn't the best thing for people in a group because you could not afford to stop and say, 'what would happen if we played this and what would happen if we played that?' Things were far too frantic. It was only after a couple of records that we were allowed the money to spend two or three months making a record, rather than two or three weeks. The first album on which we were able to experiment a bit more was Thick as a Brick. We did about two or three weeks of arranging and rehearsing with the band, the recording of the backing tracks probably took two to three weeks, and I would imagine that additional overdubs and mixing took another two or three weeks. So we had a little bit more time to explore things.
'In the Maison Rouge time things were a lot more relaxed. Then we had the time to record everything track by track and experiment with arrangements in the studio. But I have to say that I like recording at home the most. The whole point of recording at home is to dispense with people. I like to work in the morning which is when I feel best. It's nice to be able to work whenever I want and for it to take just me and nobody else. I've got a couple of pedals down here, one to go in record and one to go out of record and I sit in this chair with a mic and play, sing and do whatever I have to do. The others come in when they have to do their bit, which does away with the incredible boredom in regular studios of waiting around until you can do your bit.
'Today Jethro Tull consists of Dave Pegg, bass; Martin Allcock, keyboards; Martin Barre, electric guitar and Duane Perry, drums. The way we are working on the new album, which is similar to what was happening with Crest Of A Knave, is that Martin, Dave and I get together and rough out a few songs and put them on cassettes for some reference. Then we go to rehearse in Dave Pegg's room with a drummer. He's got a bigger studio room. Once we're satisfied with the format and arrangement of the song, we record the drum tracks in a room where we can all see each other while we're playing, so there is human contact. We play the finished song all together in the studio in one go. A seven or eight minute song we'll do as if we were playing it on stage, and we go for the take that has got the right feel and that's the master. But all we're going to keep is the drums, not because of everybody else's playing not being right, but because you want to be able to sit back and say 'what is the real guitar sound we need here and what quality of keyboard do we need there'. It's easier to play with a live drummer; even though it might not be metronomically correct, it will have the right feel. Sometimes we use a click, sometimes not. A click is useful for passages where there are no drums. There you want a reference later on that you can all lock into. So we don't use SMPTE, there's no need for that.
'I like the sound and the feel of live drums. Recording live drums is a headache for most engineers. These days there are probably quite a lot of engineers who have never miked up a drum kit. Live drum kits are really difficult to do, but they can also be very easy, provided you use your common sense and have a co-operative drummer. The sound that I'm looking for is not the sound that the drummer hears, whacking his rimshots really loudly, but the sound of a well miked-up drum kit on stage in an auditorium. I want to hear a live drum kit sound. Which means I'm not going to record it in a small live room. Instead I record it in a fairly dead atmosphere and use digital effects to reproduce the live type of drum sound.
'Because I want an auditorium sound, I'm not that keen on recording drums in live rooms like Hugh Padgham does. The problem with live rooms is that they are usually very small and have a whole set of very specific first reflections that are typical small live room sounds, but not a stadium sound. Also, sticking a couple of mics far away from a kit gives you very little control. You've got what you've got and that's it.
'I prefer to get a fairly close-miked sound, but I don't use noise gates and I don't use compressors. You'll be amazed at how many Shure SM57s there will be on a drumkit that I mic up. It's the most versatile, wonderful mic ever devised by man. For overheads I tend to use Neumann 87s, for the snare SM57 or SM81. The SM81 I also use for vocals, guitar and flute. It's a very flat microphone and rolling off bass on the mic itself allows you to use very little EQ on the desk. When I'm working I'll have a mic stand sitting here with an SM81 using it for everything that I do.
'I use an Aphex Aural Exciter whilst recording the vocal and occasionally on the acoustic guitar, just a tiny hint of it. It gives a fakey sound and it plays some nasty tricks phase wise, but if used very carefully it will preserve a natural sound all the way through the mix, particularly on vocals where you want to keep crispness. If you can hear an Aphex working you've got too much of it. When you A/B it and you can just about hear the difference that's about right, but if you go, 'ah, wow!', you've got too much on.
'In working with things like vocals or acoustic guitar all I'm concerned with is trying to capture the acoustic sound in the room. I start off with trying to get that sound onto tape. For instance if I'm playing the flute or singing, the sound that I want on tape is how it would sound to your ears sitting three or four feet away. If I'm playing the acoustic guitar, again I'm trying to get an intimate sound of a smallish comfortable room where you are sitting maybe five or six feet away from me.
'In the mix, that can clash with the big stadium sound of the drums. It's almost like a zoom camera, isn't it? It's like you're saying, 'listen to the group playing whilst you're standing in the 50th row of Madison Square Gardens and then when the guy starts to play the acoustic guitar, taking a zoom camera and bringing you up on stage. It does present a psychological problem in that it takes the listener to different parts of an environment, yet in reality it's just making movies out of sound, that's all. It would be absurd to make a movie where every shot was taken from the same distance away from where the action was. So you have to create some depth and perspective in the final mix. You'll have certain things that are going to be much more up front and present.'
Coming to the subject of mixing, I remark that Anderson's case is really quite exceptional, recording and mixing his stuff at home. Most artists with their own studios would go to a top studio to mix, yet Anderson doesn't even seem to find it a problem to make CD masters from his back room. Is that really possible with the equipment he's got, and if yes, what are all these people doing with SSLs and digital equipment? He shrugs his shoulders: 'One main reason for using SSL is the automation. I will probably part automate this desk for this album, just to have some more group control, and to make it easier to do some of the things on my own, but do I like live mixing? To me, mixing is part of the theatrical event of preparing a record. It's a live thing and everybody has got this massive amount of things to do during a mix, switching in effects and changing levels and so on, which become part of the live performance of the final song. Having used automation at Maison Rouge, I think it's OK, it's nice to be able to clear up some little thing that was bothering you. But I essentially want to have the mix going down as a live mix and automation is largely trimming the odd level of the odd hi-hat or tambourine or something.
'As far as sound quality goes, the amount of noise that's coming out of a guitar amp, or even the back of any keyboard, is incredible. The average mixer has got some channel noise and even microphones aren't entirely silent. You've got all these inherent problems and all you can do is whittle down the ones that are really bad. To my mind spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on an SSL doesn't make much sense, because the instruments I'm working with are not silent.
'That's why I'm quite happy accepting something like the Soundcraft 2400, even though it's not the quietest mixer in the world. I have to be careful with the aux channels, I have to make sure that I'm operating everything at just the right levels so that I am not returning noise. I have to make sure that everything is trimmed up just right, which means that when it comes to it I will usually be gating my effect returns as well. That's because I don't want to be left with some tell-tale low frequency hum or hiss at the end of a song that's the return of the echo unit. You didn't used to hear those kinds of things on analogue and vinyl but you hear it on CD. So you have to be a lot more careful now. And that's where the headphones help me too. With them I find it far more easy to establish what is going on than when I'm listening with speakers. I find them absolutely invaluable.'
Coming to the end of the conversation, and to another reason why people like going to a studio for the mix: getting an objective outside opinion, how does Anderson cope with the topic of objectivity, working all on his own at home? Does he never feel the need to work with an outside producer or engineer? His solution turns out to be an attitude as simple as it is appealing: 'I'm not interested in objectivity. What I'm interested in is making a record that is a very subjective experience. That means sitting in the studio and working on a vocal that feels right to me. The technical objectivity in the sense that I want to be able to hear this and that and that it all has to sound right, is something that comes from experience. With the actual music, I'm not interested in objectivity, quite the opposite. I want a solely and totally subjective experience, which is what I'm after when I'm listening to music, whether it's mine or somebody else's. I want to be moved by someone who is doing something and the kind of objectivity which comes from the producer sitting in the background and guiding events doesn't interest me at all.'
Interview by Paul Tingen
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