Paul White talks to Tony Visconti about his career, his production methods and his plans for the future.
...needs no introduction. T Rex, David Bowie, The Stranglers, Thin Lizzie, The Moody Blues... the list of successes goes on, amply demonstrating that Tony Visconti is one of the foremost record producers today.
Let's start at the beginning. My parents gave me a ukelele at the age of four and I graduated from that to guitar. I was about ten before I could actually play a few chords on it. After that I took music lessons and then encountered my first tape recorder which my dad bought to record his accordion lessons. It was an old mono valve job and he eventually gave it to me so I got together with a friend who had another one, and by the time I was twelve, we were doing overdubs and that kind of thing by bouncing between machines. We even dabbled in stereo by using two mics and running two mono machines simultaneously: as early as 1956 we were listening to stereo. My friend was a bit of an electronics wizz kid and by the time I was 13, we were getting onto some fairly sophisticated recording techniques. We used to check out the reverb of various part of the house and we even made our own reverb unit by jamming a microphone into one end of a piece of garden hose and driving the other end with a small speaker fed into a funnel. It gave a twangy coloured sound but it was great for special effects. We knew all about flanging too and got the effect by moving two mics about in front of a speaker to vary the path length. We got some great phasing effects and my mother still has some of my early recordings somewhere.
At the age of fifteen I was working as a session musician, I was into jazz and played double bass and it never occurred to me to get a normal job. One day my dad came in in the middle of the day and caught me with my feet up watching television and he told me to get a proper job or leave home. I left and knew that from then on I was in the music business.
I played in lots of bands but I was 21 before I realised that there was such a thing as a record producer. I was writing songs with my first wife and submitting them to the publishing company and eventually they said, 'Have you ever considered becoming a record producer? Your recordings are so ingenious but we hate your songs.' I said, 'Do you mean the guy who sits next to the engineer, the A&R man?' (the name producer wasn't in common usage then), and he said 'That's right'. I protested that I didn't know anything about being a producer but he told me that it was the same as I'd been doing on my demo tapes.
'In those days, bands were never allowed to go into the control room, and to this day, every New York studio has excellent monitoring facilities out in the studio. The producer might know one of the band but generally he kept himself separate from the musicians. This man behind the glass would tell everyone what to do and everything was very formal. It wasn't until Phil Spector started to make records that the term record producer came into common usage and even then, the term A&R man stuck.
At about 21 I decided to giving producing a try so I went straight from musician to producer without going through the engineer stage. A friend of mine used to smuggle me into the control room at Atlantic records during Aretha Franklin sessions and I saw what went on. Years later when I went back to look at that desk which had so fascinated me, it was just eight microphone attenuators that could be mixed and routed to an 8-track recorder: there was no EQ or provision for effects or anything. They had two external valve equalisers and that was about it.
The control room had just a single mono monitor in the middle. They were no fools, as they were mixing everything for radio, they didn't want to get involved with any stereo tricks that might detract from the mono sound, though they did have a stereo mixing suite next door. That's where I got my crash course in recording, and in those days you would only use two mics to record a complete drum kit; one for the bass drum and another one for the rest of the kit. You always had to use the studio kit which had its own room covered in egg cartons, and if the sound was wrong, you changed the mics or moved them about a bit rather than use any EQ. If a drummer was really respected, he might be allowed to move his own overhead mic!'
'After a few months of this kind of work, I met this Englishman called Denny Cordell who liked my work and asked me to come over to England to produce some things for him. He was producing acts like Georgie Fame and Procul Harem and the work load was getting too much for him to handle without an assistant.
One of my first sessions was at Olympic studios where Jimmy Hendrix used to record and I also worked at Advision which was then in New Bond St. They had quite a good desk and they were the first studio in this country to go 8-track. There was also Phonogram at Marble Arch, so in my first week I saw three studios and I'd never seen so much EQ in my life. They only had four tracks but the general level of technology was so much more advanced than in American studios. The Americans used the glass wall technique where what happened on one side of the window was faithfully recorded on the other; no screwing around with the sound. If you wanted reverb you had to find a part of the room with the right acoustics. There was no overdubbing, and Phil Spector would hire eight guitar players to play exactly the same part just to give that big sound. Even that huge snare drum sound was recorded using only natural reverb from a live chamber, which was probably a basesment room. The studios themselves were often on the fifth or sixth floor.'
'I loved the technology used on early Beatles records such as 'I am the Walrus', and one of the first things I learned how to do was tape flanging which Glyn Johns taught me. He didn't really know how it worked himself so he got his tape op to show me. Also double tracking was something that was done in England but not in the States. They wouldn't allow any time for experimentation and thought nothing of completing an album in four three hour sessions.
Looking back on it, there was nothing too unusual in the techniques we used but we did things like compressing signal onto tape and then compressing it again when we bounced or mixed down to get the maximum level onto tape, and this kind of technique was partly responsible for those primitive Beatles type drum sound and tight bass guitar sounds. It was later that things like digital delays came along and I always tried to keep at the forefront of recording technology. I stopped being at the front when people like Trevor Horn came along using Fairlights and things and I thought 'Oh God more technology!' Still I'm getting there now.'
What are the most memorable acts that you've worked with?
'When I really decided to make a big move technically, I was working with T Rex and we were simply not getting the sounds we wanted from the engineer. He was a great engineer but he was the sort of guy who would add EQ or reverb without telling you, so we ended up with his sound, not ours. When the second album came around, Marc gave me an ultimatum and told me that I should learn to engineer or get someone else. We had a very kind engineer on the second album; Malcolm Toft, who now owns Trident developments and he gave me a crash course in engineering. By the fourth day into the album, I was engineering and getting exactly the sound I wanted, I didn't realise it was so simple. Of course I would do the odd stupid thing and Malcolm would just smile at me, but it worked out fine. The thing I learned early on is that you mustn't get carried away with the power you have. To me the musical part is the content and the technology is there to facilitate that, you shouldn't make technology the main issue.'
'Of course I worked on most of the David Bowie albums and he's the kind of guy who inspires you to experiment with new production techniques. On the Man who Sold the World album, there is a track called 'The Width Of A Circle' and it has an acoustic guitar bridge passage. I turned over the tape and recorded some echo onto a spare track to produce that reversed reverb effect and though I don't claim to be the first to use it, I'd never consciously heard it done before and no one told me how to do it.
Once we actually got a vocoder sound before real vocoders were actually available and we did this by blending the voice together with a synth and changing the EQ. That was on the Heroes album and I think the sound was inspired by Sparky's Magic Piano.'
How about that really deep snare sound you got, was that a harmoniser?
'We had probably the first Eventide Harmoniser in the country and David was knocked out by it. When he asked me how it worked, I told him that it just screwed with the fabric of time. It could change pitches without altering the speed. Because it responds to the level of the input signal, it can be controlled by the drummers technique and that's how we got that snare sound: we fed it to the drummer's monitors so that he knew just what was coming out. We had a lot of fun misleading people who wanted to find out how we did it and there were all kinds of stories going round. We even put it about that the tape op cranked the vari-speed knob after each drum beat.
Another technique that we used on Heroes came about because David has a very wide vocal dynamic range so we set up three mics at different distances; one close up, one about 20 feet away and one right at the back of the auditorium. I had the two back mics on gates so that as the vocals got too loud for the first mic, the second one would open up and eventually the third. We compressed the close mic so that it wouldn't distort on the loud passages and then adjusted the balance between the mics manually on mixdown. This gave us a sound that really opened up as it got louder. We'd also use the gated room sound on drums and that was a long time before it became popular. If you trigger the room sound from the snare, it gives you the ambience just when you need it and prevents the sound from becoming too swimmy.
I like to use sound effects two ways; either really obvious like blistering phasing, or subtle things like gating the room on vocal tracks. People do that now with digital reverb systems and noise gates which is no longer news but we did it just using a live room, a couple of mics and a gate.
One other trick that we used on Diamond Dogs was to put the backing vocals through a Kepex gate keyed by a 20Hz oscillator. This broke the sound up into short bursts and by splitting the sound and using a digital delay to give 40mS delay on one side and 60mS on the other, we produced an amazing helicopter rotor sort of sound. By panning the delayed sounds hard to either side, we got something with a lot of depth that can't really be duplicated with an auto-panner. We used it again on the Scary Monsters album and I still use this effect sometimes on synths but now I can try different modulation frequencies by patching in an LFO.'
"I don't really like the sound of digital recordings though because you miss all that tape compression that you've been used to all these years..."
Don't you find that the result is more satisfying when you have to work on it, like the days when you had to layer monosynths to get a polyphonic sound?
'That's right, we had this enormous Moog and I used to go home and score out eight different parts for it which we had to overdub, but at the end of the day, it was very rewarding. Now you just use one of these polys but it isn't the same effect'.
When did you set up Good Earth studio?
'That was in about 78. Before that I had a 16-track set-up in my house at Hammersmith which Nick Lowe has since bought off me. My philosophy was that if I had professional gear in my house, I would get more relaxed results, but what happens is that other people want to use the studio and before you know it, you are living in a commercial studio, not a house anymore. This is the fourth time this has happened to me. My very first home client was Bowie who was finishing off Diamond Dogs and we hadn't worked together for a few years. He couldn't get a mix that he liked and asked me if I could recommend a place, and when I told him I'd got a place at home, he said he'd be round that evening. We didn't even have chairs, so that night we started mixing Diamond Dogs whilst sitting on a couple of carpenters benches but he loved it. We had the first Eventide digital delay and at the end of the track 'Big Brother' we wanted to trap in the word 'brother', but there was only room to store Bro... so that's what we used. Eventually I had to set up a commercial studio so that I could have somewhere to work that wouldn't interfere with my home life, but things never work out that way somehow. (At this point Tony pauses to point at the expanse of equipment filling his fashionable Marylebone Road flat.) The commercial studio was of course Good Earth, located in Dean Street.
We mixed Golden Brown for the Stranglers at Good Earth. Jean Jacques came to me and said that they didn't believe in producers but they'd heard I was a good radio type producer and they wanted their song to be played on the radio. That was quite nice because I'd taken a year off so I hadn't done any work for a while, and within a few weeks of mixing the song, it was number one and being played on the radio every day. We mixed their La Folie album and one other here and it was a nice way to get back into working.
Thin Lizzie did one platinum and two gold albums at Good Earth including Live and Dangerous which wasn't live at all except for the applause and the drum kit - Overdubbed but Dangerous really.'
What do you think to the business of recording abroad?
'I don't go much for recording overseas anymore because their philosophy of recording is always very different. For example, the maintenance might be poor or perhaps they have no staff after ten at night or something, so I feel safer working here.
In the August issue of HSR, there was that studio in Ibiza; Mediterranean Sound, and I was one of those unfortunate people who went there before Muff Murfin took over. The original owner was great fun and a lovely guy to have dinner with but he was no businessman. His mother put a fortune into that studio and he lost it all. Everything relied on a generator so there was no electricity at night and that meant that we couldn't watch TV or videos or anything. It was awful.
As a facility though, it was one of the best studios that I have ever worked in and it was certainly the best foreign studio I've ever seen - all those underground tunnels for the drum sound and everything. You get terrific drum sounds and handclaps down there. Now that it's got mains electricity and it's run by a good businessman, it should be really great.
It's because different studios take so much getting used to that I decided to work in my own studio whenever possible and since we've had the SSL desk, it's really been a joy to work in.'
'I've experimented with a Sony F1 for digital mastering and this is a good system if you want to run off lots of cassette copies as the master doesn't deteriorate. I don't really like the sound of digital recordings though because you miss all that tape compression that you've been used to all these years, so digital tends to sound a bit thin. It's a bit like the valve versus transistor argument all over again. A cassette copied from the F1 actually sounds better than the original due to tape saturation fattening up the sound.'
You were talking earlier about the different attitudes producers have to their work and to the musicians. How do you see the producer's role today and how do you approach the job?
A lot of those early producers had fairly short-lived relationships with their clients because they might spend a whole session trying out different mics and things just to get a bass drum sound. A drummer can only take so many hours of hitting a bass drum. When I read about a producer doing that now, I just see the word INCOMPETENCE flashing up in front of me. Of course now you can just sample a bass drum if you want to.
When I'm getting the basic sounds, I'll let the whole band play because the isolation is good enough to let you work on individual sounds, and the way people play together is usually quite different to the way they play on their own. I've never seen the point of letting someone hit a snare drum for two hours. If you can't get the sound in ten minutes, something's wrong.
I like a session to be really pleasant, though if there are arguments, I'll sort them out quickly. You should treat the studio like a cross between a night club and a cathedral, and making music should be a nice experience. I only work an eight hour day now because after that, you become less efficient, any ideas that come after that can wait until morning.'
"...double tracking was something that was done in England but not in the States: they wouldn't allow any time for experimentation and thought nothing of completing an album in four three hour sessions."
What do you think about the fashion for creating 12" mixes using razor blades?
'I think that by and large it's silly because it's making a big job of the technology and the song should come first. It's like that old saying about not being able to polish a turd. A good song doesn't take too much arranging. It's also very hard to hurt a good song.
Initially 12" singles were created by splicing as the extended version was an afterthought but I will often cater for an extended mix at the recording stage rather than splice one up afterwards. I might get killed for saying this but I'm not convinced that the 12" single is that viable an art form except perhaps simply as dance music. Even well made ones are boring to listen to if you aren't dancing.'
What do you think about the current situation where tape ops work two or three days on the trot and end up dead on their feet?
'I think it's disgusting. We make sure that our tape ops don't do that. If we have two consecutive sessions and both clients want to use their favourite tape op, we try desperately to talk them out of it. I've seen a tired tape op put the entire machine into record, all 24 tracks, after doing a lining up job. As well as wrecking the master tape, it proves that the guy is in no fit state to continue work. This reflects on the salaries that some of these poor lads must be getting, even my guys fight over who does the overtime and I like to think that I treat them well. Some studios don't even pay their staff anything for overtime.'
Who are you working with at the moment?
'I'm producing an album with the Moody Blues and they have changed quite a lot over the years. Patrick Moraz is a genius and he's great to work with. He lives symbiotically with computers and synthesisers though now he's disciplining himself not to overplay. Also if I write something on my MC4, he's quite happy to let me MIDI it up to his Kurzweil, he's not above that, in fact he's just fascinated to see what I can do with his equipment. I wasn't too impressed by some of the Kurzweil factory sounds (the strings were awful), but by the end of the album, Patrick had got the software to do his own sampling so after we've had our summer break, we should be able to do some interesting things with it. Originally we were only getting Mellotron quality out of it but that turned out to be no bad thing. The guys were saying that their sound had got too clean since they gave up the old Mellotron and so we deliberately set about to recreate some of the old sounds that made them famous. We even used chorus effects to put back some of that wow and flutter and double tracking to fatten it up.
I'm also doing some work with Elaine Page, and I have the challenge of making her more modern and commercial but without going too far. The songs are harder to produce than the usual rock and roll songs but in terms of feel, she wants to go for a sort of Paul Young sound with sequencers and fretless bass which gives me a lot of scope to do new things. When that is finished, it will be time for me to pick up the Moody Blues album again.'
What do you use in your home studio?
'It's a bit more than just a home studio, because I start off many of my projects there and then transfer them to Good Earth for completion. I have a Soundtracs desk with computer routing which is truly excellent for the price and a 24-track Soundcraft recorder.'
How does the Soundcraft compare against high price industrial machines?
'I don't know if my hearing is as good as it used to be but I honestly can't tell any difference in sound quality. The only problem is that the fans are a bit noisy so I have to record my vocal parts out in the hall. My piano is in a different room altogether so I just stick a couple of PZM mics under the lid and run a couple of lines down the hallway.
For monitoring I've got a pair of little Akai speakers and I find the better Sony lightweight headphones good for monitoring in the presence of neighbours. As well as the odd few guitars and a sadly neglected sitar, there are a few synths including a Roland Jupiter 8 and a DX7 and of course a LinnDrum.
I also have a Roland GR700 guitar synth which is an amazing instrument and its basic sound is really good; I only wish they'd given it MIDI IN so that I could use it as an expander for my other MIDI keyboards.
My biggest headache is that of sound insulation as the neighbours above and below me present a bit of a problem. I tend to program a lot of the rhythms and synth parts here and then transfer them to Good Earth for completion. Ideally I'd like to have the same synths and sequencers here as there. It would make life much easier.'
What plans do you have for the foreseeable future?
'Well, one thing that I'm really excited about is that I've started a company called Roar Music; a management and publishing company, which I've now brought in to manage Good Earth. We've also started a record company called Roar Records and we're getting ready for a mass onslaught in the fall with the first single release; it's called 'Intimacy'.
I feel it's the beginning of the next phase of the music industry. We've also built up a kind of academy for popular music, training bands in performance, presentation and communication skills. Another thing I do is a songwriters workshop every weekend.
As well as that, I've got going an agency called Accolade for engineers, producers, video people, maintenance guys - even tape ops. That can be a great help to someone who is working out of the country and needs someone to handle his affairs or take his messages...
So you can see I'm keeping busy. Really I suppose the purpose of all this is to bring back some real spontaneity to the music world by giving new talent a chance - because with todays bureaucracy and vested interests in the music business, it really doesn't have one.'
Interview by Paul White
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