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Interview: Glyn Johns

In a rare interview, PSNEurope talks to Glyn Johns, the first-ever freelance recording engineer as he reflects on the changing production landscape in the wake of his MPG accolade.

This month, Glyn Johns picked up The Inspiration Award at the 2013 MPG Awards in London, in recognition of “an inspirational body of work over several years in UK music production.”

To pick just one inspiring moment, he recorded The Rolling Stones even before their first Decca contract, leading to a lifelong association. To characterise it all, he personifies the trajectory by which engineer and producer have become one, exactly contemporary with the fusing of sonic and musical dimensions in recording. And he ain’t done yet… You’ve been back in the studio with Ryan Adams and with Band Of Horses. Are we witnessing a revival of open-mic, ‘organic’ studio recording with an emphasis on live playing and mixing outside the box? I wish! Wouldn’t that be nice. As the Ryan Adams album – Ashes And Fire – has been nominated for a Grammy for the engineering, it would seem that somebody is recognising something, somewhere. However, it is only a minute glimmer of hope. Why does this approach make such a difference to recorded music? Firstly it requires musicians who can play and artists who can sing and, secondly, it depends on you wanting to achieve a natural and musical sound. Can we do this and still live with Pro Tools? Of course we can. We are! Seemingly we have no choice. Pro Tools certainly has its uses and it would seem that it has gone too far as the industry standard for there to be a reversal of fortunes. I honestly think, however, that it is partially responsible for the demise of good music. Your fabled ‘3-mic’ drum techniques are now the subject of rock tutorials the world over, but how far can you pass these things on? Is there a danger of over-prescribing techniques and killing experimentation? The principle behind it is that it allows the drummer to express his own dynamics in what he’s playing. At the same time, the idea is to capture the sound that’s unique to him, as all great drummers tune their kits in their own particular way – John Bonham being a classic example.
I think the second part of your question has been answered by the first, as there are may and varied ways of recording drums already and nobody is forcing my technique down anybody’s neck. I’m sure if you were to go into any studio today, you would find very few examples of my technique being used. Presumably you still have copies of your versions of The Beatles’ Get Back project in 1969, the album later to emerge as Let It Be: do you think archives like this will become commercially viable as the market obsessively continues to curate rock’s golden age?

I don’t know. I’m not qualified to answer that. Joe Boyd told us he was disappointed by the number of out-takes now available from his artists such as Nick Drake. What effect does this type of exploitation have on an artist’s legacy?
In my view it has a slightly damaging effect, although it’s not really that important. Record companies are constantly reissuing old product and adding out-takes, which were never meant to be used and in many cases were never mixed, or even finished. They do this without any consultation with the producer or artist in an attempt to make their new package more attractive to the punter. The people making the decisions as to what goes into the package are invariably not in the least bit qualified to make any musical judgement, and certainly don’t have the interest of the artist or the producer in mind. It’s pretty shameful, really. How confident are you about the future of 5.1 – or any other format of surround sound? Not in the least. Surround sound is wonderful for movies and, other than possibly trying to recreate an auditorium for a live album, I can see no point in it whatsoever. It could only ever work really effectively if it’s recorded with 5.1 in mind. Do you have fondest memories of particular studios, sessions or even cherished items of outboard? I have very fond memories of IBC Studios in the early ‘60s, where the early Kinks and Who stuff was recorded along with the first sessions with The Rolling Stones.

The same applies to Olympic Studios, with wonderful memories of many, many hours with The Rolling Stones, the Who’s Next album in 1971 and Eric Clapton’s Slowhand – plus a myriad of others. My favourite studios in America are Ocean Way, where I made a couple of great records with John Hiatt and many others, and, of course, Sunset Sound. I have been working there for nearly 50 years, having started there in the late ‘60s mixing a Stones album, and now I’m back there all these years later with Ryan Adams.
My reasons for using Olympic, Ocean Way – Studio B in particular – and initially Studio 1 at Sunset Sound and now Studio 3, are all based on the consoles in those rooms, a comprehensive list of really good microphones and the monitoring. I hardly use any outboard gear, so it is of little or no importance. The most important thing is the sound of the console and the accuracy of the monitoring, particularly as I prefer to use large speakers. So that, in combination with a great acoustic space in the recording room, is why these studios have become my favourites.
Story: Phil Ward