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Talkback (Part 1)

Phill Brown

First of an occasional series of chats with engineers; Richard Elen extracts facts from Phill Brown.

In this first article in an occasional series of interviews with top engineers, Richard Elen extracts some useful information from well-known recordist Phill Brown.

For some reason, engineers tend to be regarded as mere backroom boys: They never seem to become household names at the listening end of the business in the same way that producers and artists do. Yet the engineer is at least as important as everyone else involved in the record business.

Phill Brown is undeniably one of the top engineers in Britain. He has a huge string of artists to his credit, and a good many hits behind him. Starting as a tape-op in London's Olympic Studios, after sitting in on sessions while his brother was assisting at the old Olympic studio in Baker Street, he stayed for a year, working on such albums as Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake and Beggar's Banquet. He did virtually no engineering there at all, and left to set up a studio in Canada with brother Terry (who today looks after Klaatu). This was the first 24-track studio in Canada, and Phill spent six months building it, and several more working there. Then he came back to England and got a job engineering at Island's Basing Street complex, which is where he gained most of his engineering experience. He was with Island for about six years, leaving in '76 to go freelance.

Since then he's worked in a number of studios in Britain and the US, but it was back at Basing Street where I tracked him down, in a break during sessions with Eddie Baird, late of Amazing Blondel, for Island Records. The basic tracks with Eddie were done at Sawmills studio in Cornwall, a studio we both know well, and he'd just returned from there to London to finish off overdubs and mixing when I caught up with him. He'd been at Sawmills in 1975 with Paul Kossoff, immediately before I'd been there myself with Gryphon. Steve Smith was producing the Kossoff sessions — Phill and Steve have worked together on a number of projects, not least with Robert Palmer. We swopped anecdotes about the sound possibilities at Sawmills, which is situated in a valley creek off the River Fowey.

RE: Did you make much use of the 'echo-off-the-valley'?

PB: Yes, there's a fantastic echo in the valley there. We put Kossoff's amp outside, screwed it up and got a good effect.

RE: Yes, I cursed myself for not being the first to do it; we set up an Eliminator pointing through the door and put synth solos through it.

PB: Synthesisers work well like that: that's something we did recently. We put a Moog out there — quite amazing; more impressive, in a sense, than guitar, because the guitar was a more predictable type of effect. It was astounding some of the synth notes that came back from the distant valley, as well.

RE: Yes, we got people saying they could hear it in the village.

PB: But the most experimental recording I've done outside was on the John Martyn One World album last summer. We recorded that out at Theale, surrounded by water on three sides. Depending on what time of day or night that we were recording the sound was totally different. The best time was about three to six in the morning, and we got some fantastic results — in a way better than the Sawmills thing — it was a much dreamier, slower thing and the water and everything that was around, it was a whole different sound. That's used on that album to a point. Although, after all the overdubs, some of it's lost, you get a certain 'size' and power of some things that come across. You can always tell when something's done outdoors.

RE: Did you do any vocals outdoors?

PB: Not on that album, the only time it's worked for me was on the Sneakin' Sally album — and there's about three tracks on Pressure Drop that were done outdoors. Sneakin' Sally was done outside a church in Kent, a place called Addington, we just happened to turn up there — I knew the vicar; so we set up... We used the church wall — there was a fantastic crispness and liveness coming back off the wall, so we did some of it there, and some at my house. Did a lot of percussion there, and stuff. Then on Pressure Drop we were out at Theale again. We used the idea of a wall again, but it was a totally different kind of effect. It's Chris Blackwell's house as a matter of fact; it used to be an old gravel pit, but now it's all surrounded by water — an old house out in the middle.

RE: But Basing Street's where you've done the bulk of your work.

PB: Yes, overall, but the bulk of what I've done in recent years, like with Robert Palmer, was done in LA. But all over the States as well: with Little Feat in Washington, we cut some tracks, and down in Muscle Shoals. That was interesting: I'd wanted to get to Muscle Shoals for a while. I'd heard a lot of records I really liked that were done there, so that was good fun. But those have been, really, specific projects. Robert's things were always totally different to everything else that we were working on.

RE: How do you find the contrast between American and British studios and techniques?

PB: When I was first going out to the States to work, I thought they'd be totally different, they'd be super space-age, they'd have every gadget you could think of. But I found that the ones I really enjoyed working in were the really funky old rooms; this place we worked at in Washington was the ITI parametric people, who had a studio at the back of their factory, on an industrial estate, so it was a strange place to actually go to work. We were working in their experimental studio in the back which had a good room, and the desk was all ITI parametric. Great, it was fun. Then we went from that extreme to Nashville West, in LA, which was the old Motown studio, and that was a miniaturised desk, with basic top, middle and bass, and very little choice of frequencies — bare leads and things hanging out of walls, and things that were connected at various times.

But the room there was probably one of the best I've ever worked in: it was just incredible. Whoever put it together was lucky, I guess; there seems to be a certain amount of luck involved in putting a studio together. It was a live room, but the leakage was controllable, it had all those kinds of benefits. There was a live section and a dead section, and you could move people around within the room. I recorded the whole of Little Feat and a live vocal, a lot of which was used in the end, and the leakage was just... controllable. Good leakage, that made everything live. In the control room we were listening to a very inferior sound. It was safe, but I wasn't really listening to something I liked. Then we'd go back to the hotel and listen to cassettes and were very surprised how the sound was coming over on a cassette machine. It may sound a crazy way of working, but sometimes extremes... And that was good. We never mixed there; in fact the only place I've mixed in the States was Clover, in LA, where we did the Some People Can Do What They Like Robert Palmer album.

Over here, Chipping Norton was fun, I worked out there. We started doing the Stevie Winwood solo album out there. In three weeks we recorded a whole batch of stuff, about twelve songs, scrapped it all and started again. In fact we did that twice, scrapping songs and doing them over with a different band, then that was scrapped. Then we moved into Basing Street, and brought in Andy Newmark and Willie Weeks. The reason we moved into London was that bringing Andy in from New York, into Chipping Norton, might not be good for his head, so we stuck him in the city, so he could adapt better. We worked downstairs, Studio 2, and put the basic tracks down in a week, then spent about four months overdubbing. We mixed there as well.

RE: How do you find your basic approach to recording varies from studio to studio?

PB: I have a basic setup of microphones that I like to use, but when I go into a studio I check out the room, play something I'm used to, to find out where I am in the control room. Then if I can use the mics I'm used to, I do. But I wouldn't say I'm particularly 'fixed' to a really strict pattern. I tend to use different setups for different types of music, so that I'll mic closely for certain things, and a bit further away for rock'n'roll type of things, I basically use 87s and things on drums...

RE: What is your basic mic setup for drums?

PB: Tom toms would be 87s, with 10dB cut, overheads 87s, Snare 224, hi-hat 224 or 451, and bass drum, usually over here a D20, but in America I was using the Electrovoice RE20. I originally used it on bass drum, and it was incredible, and later, because I hadn't got another mic spare, stuck it up for a live vocal, and was amazed at the quality on that. In fact now I use them more for vocals than I do for bass drum. That would be the basic drum setup.

RE: You tend to mic up the different parts of the kit separately, from what I remember.

PB: Yes, I do that, then I have a couple of mics above the drums or somewhere in the room if I want to have any control over making the drums 'liver'. An example is on the Alex Harvey album: he has quite a large kit, and we were using about ten mics for that, plus a couple of ambience mics that we ended up using. It had quite a good effect, opening it out. The problem there is if anyone else goofs up I played about a bit with putting the room mics out-of-phase with the kit, so you could get some good effects with them coming out behind you; instead of deepening the perspective, it was bringing it more towards the person listening. That worked a couple of times, subtly.

RE: Do you get any problems with the difference in stereo picture created by using both ambience and close-miked drums?

PB: At first, yes. The first time I did it — some years back — I put the room mics up on the spur of the moment to get something extra. I kind of get fed up with some studios after a while: there's a limit to how much you can change things round, get different sounds, and it's boring getting the same things all the time. The first time I set up a couple of mics more to see what would happen than anything else; it wasn't a fiasco, but it was more like mono drums on two mics. But nowadays, if you're in the right kind of room — even a small one — and get your ambience mics in the right positions with the help of the screens you have round the drums anyway, you can surprise yourself and get quite a good stereo effect with the two mics, and slot them in over the top of the normal drum tracks. And it doesn't start to confuse you with toms coming out in the wrong direction, though you can use that as an effect if you want.

RE: I tend to take it the other way and use a coincident pair of overheads plus a mic on left and right sides of the kit, put them down on two tracks plus a track for bass drum. That gives an integrated sound of the whole kit.

PB: That sounds good, I can see that for some things it would be really good, that's interesting. I must say that while I often start off with a stereo kit, I frequently end up with the drums very slightly panned, or even in mono. I've got into liking to hear drums as drums, rather than gymnastics round the room. I learnt, what, in '67, at Olympic, and that was four-track, so it was such a totally different way of working. If I think back, I remember when I first came here I used three mics on drums...

PB: À la Glyn Johns?

PB: Yes, that kind of thing, bass drum, snare and one overhead, then I went to two overheads, pretty soon after I arrived here because of the different style of music that was being done here. It was mainly rock music, and it was quite a few years before I miked up the tom toms or even got past the idea of two or three tracks for drums. Now I only use four, I very rarely go past that. Bass drum, snare and then the stereo. I like to use the minimum number of mics I possibly, can, the more mics the more problems. If you can get away with six mics, or something like that, it's nice. I think the reason I work the way I do now, with a fairly 'presency' sound on the snare and things, is because with Robert Palmer we used to do a fair number of tricks, taking drums out and Kepex-ing the bass drum, or just triggering off something when we only wanted the snare. You need that kind of control on some of those projects, where the other way you're slightly 'out of depth' trying to get the results.

It's all right on the 'liver' kind of thing, where you know it's going to end up more or less the way you recorded it. But on many of the things I've done in the last few years the basic track has been much different finally to when it was put down.

RE: Do you tend to go for getting the sound in the studio first, taping up drums and so on?

PB: Yes, I do eq a moderate amount, but I'm not really a great eq fanatic. I'd much rather get the sound at least 80% right in the studio first, because you've virtually got to get it right, otherwise you're fighting all the time, and the snare is obviously important, to get that sounding right out there, and the tom toms. I don't like using a lot of tape, but a small amount here and there can just get them better for studio work than live work. Then you can put the finishing touches with eq. But basically I get the sound in the studio. And that goes for everything, bass, guitars...

RE: From listening to albums you've done, there's a characteristic kind of sound you get. I think: A bit of 10K, 2.8K, 200Hz on snare for instance...

PB: That's pretty close, for a rough guess that's very close. I use the 10K, the 2.8, sometimes if the snare is thinnish I go for 1, stick that in, but usually 10K, 2.8K, and the lower end it's usually 100 or 60. I sometimes use a lot of 60 where I could have got away with a little 200 or 100, especially on Sneakin' Sally — I keep referring back to that — there's a lot of bass end on that album, solid as a rock, and it's also very crisp, but it's basically 60 or 100 on a lot of the instruments. That leaves the middle free; there's a lot of instruments like clavinets, and things in the middle.

RE: How do you get on with parametrics, as opposed to normal eq?

PB: When I was working on the ITI desk, I got into it. I had to, for about three weeks, and I really enjoyed it. I do enjoy parametrics, they really give you that control, but recently... The parametrics we've got here (Basing Street 1 has a couple of separate Helios parametrics to supplement the standard eq) I don't really like. Their fixed eq seems a lot better. It's a bit strange. The Island Hammersmith desk — Helios as well — is all parametric, but 3-band rather than the 4 — that's in here. You can get some really good results with that. But for speed, that's another thing. If you're doing sessions where you don't have the time to go through and get sounds, you can't really push the parametrics enough. They're great for overdubbing, you can play around and get them precise. But on a lot of sessions the basic tracks are being cut extremely quickly. And parametrics — through not using them so much over here — they slow me down a little. I tend to go for what I know is good, without pushing them on that one extra step.

RE: I had a parametric in the studio once, I played about with it, trying to get a sound, and always seemed to end up with it flat.

PB: Also, some of them are really smooth, have a warm type of feel, others are very abrupt. I really don't like any coarse type of eq, or any frequency that's got that kind of 'acute angle' to it. I mean, Helios I would imagine is quite a smooth eq, unlike, say, a Neve. Neve is a harder kind of eq. I got a great string sound on a Neve once, though.

RE: I've found that. I got into using very little eq; once you start adding eq somewhere you've got to do it everywhere else, because it gets out of balance.

PB: Right. When I'm recording tracks — especially drums, they're the perfect example — I do 60% of the eq-ing at that time, so that I can take it in either direction on the mix, if I want it much crisper or tighter I've got leeway to do that, or I can tone it down. I'm able to do either. I don't do all of what I want to end up on the record, I do 60%, and then that extra little touch, which is very little, I do that on the mix.

RE: How about bass guitar? Do you use something like an 87 plus di?

PB: I use a di, but — old school I guess — I use a D12 or D20, on the bass amp. I've used 87s at times but I nearly always use a D20.

RE: Do you tend to mix down the di and mic on to the same track or keep them separate?

PB: I nearly always keep them separate; then, while the mix is going, I can change the sound. I like to keep my options open. I suppose I end up with more di signal than amp: the di for the kind of tightness and the amp for a warm sound. Sometimes if the amp is a really good signal, I'll reverse that. But a lot of the time the di ends up being the better signal.

RE: Do you do much talking to bass-players, getting the sound on the amp?

PB: Yeah, well I've been lucky enough to work with some good bass-players, like Chuck Rainey and Bob Babbitt, and James Jamieson, they were just fantastic. You just put up the mic — or the di, it didn't matter — and your sound was there, I mean literally. I didn't need to do anything at all. When we mixed we might have played around with it a bit, but with guys of that calibre and experience they give you a good signal in the first place. With other guys that aren't as experienced in bands and things, they tend to walk in the studio with a huge Acoustic bass amp, which is really about the worst one you can work with in the studio. They need to be miked at a certain distance, and that presents problems in a studio, so you end up with a very woolly, woofy kind of sound. There are a couple of guys I've worked with, though, who've got good signals. But I like to work with small bass amps, Ampegs, or other small bizarre makes. An HH, a guy brought in one once that was very good, and old Fenders, but Ampegs give a great bass signal.

RE: How about mic positions on bass amps? How close do you go to the cab?

PB: That again would depend; about a foot away from the grille. Sometimes I'd like to mike further, and I can if everyone's playing at sensible volumes, and the bass is in the best possible place. But most of the time it's about a foot, eighteen inches. Never really ever nearer than a foot. I never mic anything closer than that on amplified instruments. The old up-to-the-grille thing I did at one time, I think everyone did when they started, but you soon realise what you're missing. There's one amp: an American amp that's just come out, I think: I've only seen them the last few months — that's the Boogie amp (made by Mesa). They're small amps but they're great on stage. The 100 has incredible power, and really cuts through. I've never been lucky enough to record one; if they make a bass amp it'd be really good to be able to check it out in the studio. Anyway, the bass is the amp that gets miked the furthest, but in some situations where there's a lot of guys playing in a small space, or you've set up quickly 'cos they're just out there playing and you want to capture that sound... Then I put the mic as near as I have to to eliminate leakage, but that still wouldn't mean any nearer than six inches.

RE: Do you go for a fair degree of separation, then?

PB: I don't like 'separated sounds', where everything sounds as if it's in its own box, so you get no leakage of anything. Maybe it's an ideal situation, but it really does depend on what you're working on. Whether what the musicians cut as the basic, for instance, is going to be the way it ends up, and you aren't going to replace anything. But basically, leakage doesn't worry me as long as it's controllable, if I can get rid of it with a Kepex if I don't want it, and it's not taking away the sound of the instrument that's leaking on to it. Then it doesn't worry me. But I'm talking about a fairly small amount there, I think.

RE: What do you use on guitar?

PB: Guitars: I'm more flexible there, I think... again, D20s, if they're around, but 87s a lot of the time, especially for overdubs, where I'll mike two or three feet away. If I'm stuck, I'll use almost anything: 224s are very good. When you're looking at them, and you think of the things you'd use a 224 on, and think about putting them in front of a loud amp, you'd think twice about it, but they are good. And there's a Shure... SM7 I think... I've used those on guitars and on tom toms. Working at Olympic, when they were short on mics, or something, and I was left with few 87s, I used them on toms, and I've put them on amps. But usually it's D20, 87, or 224.

RE: On guitar overdubs do you use two mics, a close-mic and one for ambience?

PB: Yes, I nearly always use a couple of mics, usually combined on to one track, with the sound I want at the time, unless it's extremes, when I might split them just so's I can choose a bit later and see which balance gives the best effect.

RE: You did some things with Robert Palmer using two multitrack machines.

PB: Yes, we had two sixteen-track machines Maglinked together and we cut all the tracks on one machine, forgetting the other for the moment, then we linked up the other, and copied on to the second machine, just a stereo mix of the backing tracks, then we put the master backing-tracks away, and worked with thirteen tracks, overdubbing all the things we wanted. When we had, say eight vocal tracks, we'd then mix them down, straight back on to the master machine, into a stereo spread, or whatever the situation was. We'd do all our overdubbing and messing about with hundreds of tracks, on a machine where we had the maximum amount of tracks on hand, and mix with everything right, back on to the master. This was for Some People..., and there are little dub things on there, sections made up of different instruments, and this is basically why we did it that way, so we could put it down on the machine and clean up. When we came to the mix, some of the numbers only had about twelve tracks, but on those twelve was something like 28 tracks of information. It made it much easier to mix, though it took a couple of days to believe that it would all come back in sync, but that's how we used it. We used it in a different way on the John Martyn album, where again we put all the tracks down on a 24-track, then we Maglinked another 24-track and did overdubs, mainly weird effects from things that went down on the first machine. We kept it in that state, as kind of experiments, odd things, and we mixed from the first 24-track and added things from the other machine. Both were going on the mix. Luckily the desk was 32-in, and we were only using like four or five tracks off the other machine. It was more experimental than actually needing 48 tracks. I think it's a bit of a nightmare, 36, 48 tracks, maybe there's things that you need those for, but I personally went back to sixteen about three years ago. Not to say that I don't use 24-track when I need to, but... the Steve Winwood album was all done 16-track, and on a lot of those tracks there's a fair amount going on.

I really like 16 as a size, you know — it has just about everything you need, and when you come to mix, you can still have some spontaneity and fun while you're mixing it. The concentration when it comes to 24... you've got a few extra things coming in, never really less than 30 channels, and you get into a lot of gymnastics. I've never used a computer system satisfactorily — I've sat in on sessions, where the thing kept on over-riding everyone's decisions, that made me think twice about it. And I like the human element, even on the mixing stage, with a kind of 'performance mix'... that's what the gig's about. With 16-track you're probably using up to 20 faders, with the odd effect here and there, and that's controllable, for one, and especially for two if there's something that needs doing, but 24, 30 tracks... Well, I do it occasionally; I often work 24-track, but I like to have the tape cleaned up. That's something I've got into over the past few years, keeping the right things on the machine — making decisions. That's the thing about 16, you've got to make decisions as to what you really want. With 24 you can keep things there as a memory, and then when you get to mixing there's either total confusion as to what you'd originally decided or your ideas have changed by then and you start getting sidetracked.

RE: You end up fabricating a track from about half a dozen different takes and lose the continuity.

PB: There's a circle that's been going on: at the end of the Sixties when everyone was working 8-track, and went up to 16, and there were all these possibilities for helping the musician and getting ideas together. Then it went up to 24, and everyone felt they had to fill 24 tracks up, decisions were put off. I think it's slowly coming back now, to a much simpler thing. New Wave has helped a lot, given a push in that direction, but I think it was happening before that. We're going back to a much more spontaneous way of working, it's much more real. There are still bands coming out with 'manufactured' albums and singles, but that's a different market. The things I like tend to be where you're sitting down and listening to what sounds like a bunch of guys playing real, as opposed to manufactured, music. It's very easy to manufacture a word here, say, and keep doing hundreds of guitar solos putting them all in at once at the end...

Concluded next month

Series - "Talkback - Phill Brown"

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Sound International - Copyright: Link House Publications


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Phill Brown




Talkback - Phill Brown

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Interview by Richard Elen

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