Updated: Oct 17, 2022
HE'S WON GRAMMYS®, PRODUCED AND ENGINEERED HITS THAT HAVE SOLD MORE THAN 70 MILLION RECORDS, BUT HE'S STILL A ROCK AND ROLL GUITAR PLAYER AT HEART. MEET LEGENDARY PRODUCER PHIL GREENE.
| With Grant Maloy Smith
1981 was the first time I ever walked into a recording studio. It was called Normandy Sound, an amazing place in Warren, Rhode Island about an hour from my house. I had been making terrible demos on a TEAC 4-track tape deck, and I wanted to make some better recordings. I had heard that famous artists were recording at Normandy, and that their chief engineer, Phil Greene, was an absolute genius behind the mixing board. Entering the control room for the first time, I saw him standing at the board, one finger on the talk-back button as he barked some instructions to a tech in the live room.
“No, I told you to put the Neumann over the piano. Like we did yesterday. Remember how I did it? You do? Good! Do it like that.”
He released the button and turned around, eyeballing me. “What do YOU want?” he asked as he dropped back into his rolling producer’s chair. “Umm,” I stammered.
“I know, you want to make some demos. I heard your tape. Sit down and watch. There.” He pointed at the couch, then he spun around and went back to work producing a track for a Boston rock band called The Neighborhoods. He was talking to a drummer in a booth that I couldn’t see from my seat. “Kick,” Phil commanded into the talkback mic. The drummer played the kick drum. It sounded fantastic to me. “That’s crap. Kick harder,” Phil ordered. Two more kicks Phil was up and out of his chair and gone. A few seconds later I heard his voice coming from the drum mics, coming through the control room monitors. Then he was back. “Kick it again.” Boom. “That’s better. See what happens when you put the mic in the right place?” He laughed. “OK, now hit the snare like you mean it.”
This was more than 40 years ago. Phil’s hair was black. He was wiry and full of energy. Powered by endless cups of 3 a.m. Dunkin Donuts coffee, a short block away on Main Street. And sheer determination.
After we worked on several tracks together he saw that I knew how to arrange songs, and he started throwing me pre-production jobs. He was simply overloaded with clients coming in. He’d give me the clients who needed the most guidance in putting together their songs. I ended up playing piano, guitar and bass on these songs when the songwriter or band couldn’t do it. I used several different drummers on these tracks. Phil paid me in studio time, which I used to record my own demos from time to time. But the most important thing was that I was learning how to work in a studio, and how to put a track together.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning valuable lessons from one of the best in the world, Phil Greene.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Who were your parents?
I was named after my dad, Philip Greene. He owned and ran hotels, bars and restaurants. My mom Dorothy was a professional French chef, and a well-known artist in New England. She started the art festival in Narragansett, Rhode Island between 1963 and 1964. She exhibited and sold her art at festivals across Rhode Island and New England. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the late 1930s.
But, like many women in those days, she dropped out when she met my dad, and they decided to get married.
I got my first guitar in August of 1959. I had only been playing it for about a week when my mom dragged me to my first guitar lesson. This was very much against my will at the time. I was a Narragansett kid, and it was against our religion to go to any kind of school in the Summer.
Narragansett being a beach town, you lived near the ocean.
Yes, but I will be forever thankful for her quick and wise guidance. My journey in music started on the day that she took me to a guitar teacher. Being an artist herself, she understood that talent had to be developed in order to become something worthwhile. I owe so much to her. I think about her every day, and I send my thanks to her in Heaven.
You had a natural knack for the guitar. When did you start gigging?
By the time I was 14 years old I was playing three to five nights per week. When I turned 16, I quit high school and went on the road, playing 6 or 7 nights every week.
Phil, having produced records that have sold almost a hundred million copies, you’ve probably forgotten more about recording technology than most people will ever know. How long you been engineering and producing records?
I started being a full-time engineer around 1975. The advances that I have seen in recording technology between then and now have been amazing.
Everything was analog in the 1970s, right? The SSL (solid state logic) mixing boards started popping up around the end of the decade.
Right. Around ’78 or ’79 I saw the SL 4000 E Series mixing board at the AES (Audio Engineering Society) show at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Back then, my gut reaction was that it was too complicated. I said, “who the hell needs all that? I just want to make a record. I don’t want to fly to Mars!” (laughs)
I was just a kid there at the show, talking to these older guys about this newfangled SSL board. I learned a few minutes later I had been talking to producer Bob Clearmountain, and and the owner of the Power Station Recording Studio, Bob Walters. Those guys were legends. Everyone was just looking at this SSL console and asking, ‘what the fuck? Is this guy kidding?’ But within two years they ruled the planet with it.
What are your favorite consoles to work with? Which ones do you felt like you can get the best results from?
Well, I’ve got three. It depends on what you’re doing. Different kinds of music require different kinds of gear. I like to record on the 8078 NEVE console (52 channels). And the smaller 8068: at 32 channels it was just about as good as the bigger one. Of course that you got the four band EQ on the 8078, while the 8068 had a 3-band EQ. My favorite recording room ever was Studio A at Oceanway in Nashville. Take a picture of that one if you ever get a chance.
Of all the rooms I ever worked at in my life, that one kicks the shit out of them all.
I also like the NEVE 8068, like the one that used to be in studio A at the Power Station when Bob Clearmountain was there. They recorded countless hit records on that board in that room.
Next, I like SSL 4000s with a good computer that has been souped-up by my tech, Danny. There’s something delicate and intimate about them, like on the Peter Wolff album that I produced, SLEEPLESS. That album went to somewhere around #140 on the top 500 albums of all time on the Rolling Stone list.
I like that intimate, non-produced, not sounding like a hit record sound - not wham-bam sound. There was another board that I used, the 8048 NEVE. It’s not laid out quite as well as the other NEVEs, but it has the same sound. They also don’t have the “hit record” sound: they’re intimate - you don’t hear the recording (process) much on them either.
You’ve always been noted for your ability to get killer drum sounds. Is there a particular secret you have, or is it just your just your experience with with drums and recording over the last 50 years?
Both. Even when I was still just a guitar player, I knew when we were using the wrong mic on something, because it sounded like crap. In 1974 I had been playing in the Tombstone Blues Band. But I made a bunch of money selling a 1958 Fender Explorer. You know what they’re worth: Fender only made a handful of them ever. That guitar would be worth like a quarter of a million dollar or more today, but I paid $300 for it, and even that seemed a lot of money in 1974. Anyway, I made enough money selling it that I could take a year off and build a recording studio.
During that year I played in a band called Silver Lake. The drummer and the bass player were the engineers for the Fedco Audio Truck. Do you remember that one?
Sure. They recorded the east coast performances that are on Peter Framton's Frampton Comes Alive album.
Right. Well, in those days I was living in a loft, and those guys who ran the truck lived in the apartment above me. Their living room was all set up for live recording . We used the truck when it wasn’t being used for a show. We’d run a snake up from the truck on the street below into their apartment window, and we had a 24-track recording studio for free. The bass player was the chief engineer of the truck. He said “you guys get to play, but I have to run down to the truck to punch myself in on the bass.” So he yelled out, “one of you guys needs to learn how to use this equipment!”
Well, I put my hand up real quick. I wanted to learn how to produce records. I realized even then that the only way I was going to get to produce was if I was the guy sitting in the chair in front of the mixing board all the time. He took me seriously, and threw this book at me called “Modern Recording Techniques,” by David Miles Huber. It was about 600 pages long. He said, “When you understand every word in this book, I’ll let you touch my equipment.”
At the time I was not a technical guy: I was a guitar player. All of this electronic stuff sounded like Ancient Greek to me. But I put my head into that book and didn’t take it out until I was done. Some paragraphs I had to read ten times before I could understand them. But I was committed, and by the time that I got done with that book, I understood every fucking word of it. When I proved it to him, he let me touch his equipment.
They had one of the first APIs ever made. It had only a 2-band EQ. But the thing sounded amazing. The old API equalizers were from Melcor, a company that API had purchased. That mixing board was 32 by 24. But it had gotten older and was starting to become problematic, so they replaced with with a Trident 80 board, which honestly wasn’t anywhere near as good as the API, but it was much smaller and didn’t take up the whole truck. Admittedly the old API was huge. That Trident was one of my favorite ‘cheap’ boards.
The guy who owned the truck donated that board to RIC (Rhode Island College). But they didn’t know what to do with it, so they threw it in the dumpster. All of those EQs and mic preamplifiers! If I had known that was going to happen I would have gone and rescued it. I would have gladly dove into that dumpster, pulling all that priceless vintage gear out of there. Everything was modular back then. Wouldn’t you like to have a bunch of vintage analog mic preamps and EQs in your studio? I bet you could mix some nice sounding stuff with that, right? The older stuff is the best stuff. That API was from the time when basically every board was a custom order. This was before they had standard models that you could just buy. It didn’t do a lot, but it sounded absolutely amazing.
I wish I had a time machine…
Me, too. That API only had a 2-band EQ and three frequency selections on each band, so it didn’t have a lot of flexibility. But I learned something very important: it’s not about turning knobs and putting EQ on everything.
We had about 125 mics in the truck. So, if we didn’t like the sound on something, we’d try a different mic. And then we’d move the mic until we got the sound that we wanted. Mic choice and mic placement are the key.
It’s so true. For example, I have a high tenor voice, and the most expensive condenser mics in the world bring out the worst qualities in my voice. I discovered that a $400 dynamic mic like the Shure SM7B is better on me than a $10,000 Telefunken.
Damn right. You have to pick the mic that works best for the source. I can break quality recording down to a few simple things.
Let’s talk about drums, specifically. First, the quality of the source: you’ve got to tune that drum right. I change drum heads a lot. I particularly like Remo Ambassadors. And you can’t put a lot of tape and shit on a drum and deaden the fuck out of it.
Drums are supposed to ring. They don’t even sound like drums if you kill all of it. You can hear that ringing on the close mics, but when you play the whole set and bring up the overheads and room mics, you may not. Drums sound dead without some ring. That’s what they really sound like – don’t kill it.
In terms of EQ or other processing, I put almost nothing on drums. I put a little something on the kick drum - very little, on the back head. I put nothing on the toms. You learn how to tune toms not to ring annoyingly. The top head has to be tightened pretty high, so that it’s not floppy, and then you tune the bottom head about a minor third lower. For some reason that pitch interval kills bad ring.
And with the snare, you want the ring: you want the “nnnng nnnng nnnng,” that bow, you know, that vowel that actually comes through in the mix. It’s not about getting rid of the ring - it’s about tuning it so that you get the right ring. Also with snares, some guys tighten up the batter (top head) too much. You want them loose so they rattle in a little bit. That records like a motherfucker. Normally, with drums I loosen them all the way down and then I keep bringing them up slowly. I keep hitting the drum head until I get the right sound. I use my ears. And my experience. I know what’s going to sit in the mix nicely.
So there’s tuning, but lot of is putting the right mic in the right place, in the right room. I think the other thing is most important is the engineer - because that’s where these techniques are coming from, right? But after all that, it’s important to have a good set of speakers that don’t lie to you. You can have the shittiest board in the world and a not-so-great recording system, but if you’ve got a great engineer, and you got great mics and a great room and a great drummer, and you’ve tuned the drums right, you’re going to get a great drum sound.
Let’s talk about Normandy Sound. I know that it began in 1973 with Bob Shuman, a lawyer from Boston. He was also a passionate “weekend musician” and recording gear enthusiast. He built an 8-track studio in his basement to experiment with. By 1975 he had met Alan Freedman, an accountant and also a part-time musician. They started playing together in Bob’s studio, accumulating more mics and more recording gear. At one point they bought an old laundry van and turned it into a remote truck so that they could record local Rhode Island bands who wanted to make a decent demo of their live performance, for $125 per night. When they outgrew that they decided to open a real studio, and they bought a space on Market Street in Warren, Rhode Island - close to the border of Massachusetts. That space used to be a furniture store, but they spent nights and weekends turning it into a studio. You came into the picture in early 1976, as I recall.
I came in six months after it opened. When I first got there, that place was a mess. I was just a friend of Bob Shuman. I had sold my 8-track, and I was building a 24-track studio in northern New Jersey. He called me up and said, “I’m dying up here. I’m going to lose this place – I can’t get any business.”
I said, “what you need is an engineer that knows what the fuck he’s doing. And who knows people.”
He asked, “do you know anyone who could do it?” And I said “Yeah … me!”
I walked into Normandy, and I swear to God, within a month it was the hottest thing in New England. I’ve never had a success like that, from the second that I walked into that room. Bob talked to people in New Jersey to get my money out of there – I had a bunch of money tied up because I had ordered a console for my Jersey studio. He got my cash back. After that. Bob and Alan sold me a third of Normandy Sound for $12,000.
But there was a reason that they brought me in: I made more money for them in one week than during the two previous two months. Otherwise, that studio would have been closed by 1977.
So, is this the turning point when you officially went from being a guitar player who engineered, to being a full-time engineer and producer?
Yes. My last band had gotten a four album deal with Epic Records, but I quit in the middle of that deal because I didn’t like what was happening. They were a bunch of Berkeley students. They’d say things like “you can’t do that, because I was taught that you can’t do that.” To which I said, “But it sounds good: I’m going to do that.” Also, I wrote the songs and I got the record deal, so I told them “your songs didn’t get the record deal, so we’re going to do it my way.” But we couldn’t agree, so I quit the band and went on my own. I had already been building my own studio, and I decided to focus on that, and forget being in a band.
Back then, if you played six nights a week you might make $300 total. But in my studio I could make a couple of hundred bucks a day! And I was much happier. I had been playing since I was 14 years old making scraps, so by 1976 I was thinking ‘this shit sucks.’ It was time to do something new.
When you were in bands, did you play big shows? Little shows? Nationally or regionally?
We opened for the Allman Brothers Band in front of 600,000 people. I played in Washington DC at a Peace Festival in 1972, opening for John Lennon. There were probably 450,000 people at that one. Also, Led Zeppelin in front of 90,000. I’ve done 5, 10, 20 thousand seat theaters. I played the PPAC (The Providence Performing Arts Center) more times than I can even count. It had a different name every time I played there. First it was Lowes State Theater, and then the Palace Concert Theater, then the Ocean State Theatre and finally PPAC. Back in the old days it used to be a place where you’d get gum on the bottom of your shoes. They don’t want those wild rock shows in there any more.
EDITOR’S NOTE: When it was ‘The Palace,’ PPAC was a rock and roll hall that hosted acts like Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac, The Kinks, the Doors, Queen, Lou Reed, Van Morrison and King Crimson.
I saw Gregg Allman doing a solo tour there, without the Allman Brothers. I think it was ’73. Gregg had grand piano with a candelabra on it, like Liberace. And he had a pitcher of water. He was doing a Ray Charles thing, right? Gregg is really good. And he had the Muscle Shoals Rhythm section – you know, those white guys who played on every black R&B record back in the day. He had 12 string players, and he made them all wear tuxedos. No one else had to wear tuxes except for the string section. And there were three black girls singing background. Fucking amazing. Way better than the Allman Brothers (laughs). That was right in the middle of my gigging years. I I was 23, playing in the band Swallow.
Speaking of bands, Swallow is the one that I remember. You were signed to Warner Brothers, right?
Yes, but in effect we were signed by Atlantic Records president Ahmet Erdegun. Atlantic was the best label to be on in those days for anything R&B. They had Eric Clapton, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones...I don’t know who they didn’t have! If you were a blues/rock band on the east coast of the United States, Atlantic was the label to be on.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Swallow was an 11-piece R&B band with great rhythm and horn sections, known for its “wall of sound.” Swallow toured extensively throughout the USA and Canada, sharing the stage with big name acts like The J. Geils Band, Aerosmith, Sly and the Family Stone, Joe Cocker, The Beach Boys, BB King, Linda Ronstadt, Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers, Traffic and many more.
We were in Montreal opening up for Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, featuring Eric Clapton. You know, that gig he had between Blind Faith and when went solo? Clapton is clever: guess what “the friends” became? The Dominos!
You’re referring to Delaney and Bonnie’s band: keyboard player Bobby Whitlock, bass player Carl Radle, and drummer Jim Gordon. They became Eric’s band, Derek and the Dominos.
Yes, just rebranded. So, we’re opening up the show, and Ahmet Ertegun is out there in the audience sitting with Delaney and Eric Clapton, watching us because we were the opening act. We were good. We were really good. Delaney said “Ahmet, you need to sign these guys – I want to produce them.” And Clapton said, “Yeah, you ought to sign these guys.” They’re both going on and on about us, and Ahmet said, “OK, I like them. I’m going to sign them.”
So we came off the stage, and this old, Turkish guy comes into our dressing room. I had no idea who the fuck he was. He didn’t look like a record executive – he looked like a little old Turkish guy.
Don’t judge a book by its cover…
Ahmet was a genius who’s in the R&B Hall of Fame today, by the way. He says, “Hey, I want to talk to you guys.”
I said, “Who might you be?”
“Ahmet Ertugun,” he answered. We couldn’t believe it when when we heard his name. He was a legend, but we didn’t know what he looked like. Our jaws dropped. Ahmet was the co-founder and president of Atlantic Records. Suddenly we were all genuflecting, as if to say “we’re not worthy of being in your presence.”
Ahmet smiled and asked us casually, “Would you boys like to sign a contract with Atlantic Records?”
When I got my jaw up off the floor, I was like, “where’s the pen!”
So we’re backstage in Montreal. This was the Festival Express that they used to have in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Bands piled onto a train that went from one side of Canada to the other, playing shows in cities across the country. They had Clapton, The Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, the Grateful Dead - they had everybody. This was the Montreal stop, and on this particular day we had opened up for Delaney & Bonnie and Eric Clapton, and Ahmet Ertegun walked into our dressing-room and signed us to a record contract.
That’s back in the days when you didn’t have to make demos and go through all the shit that they make you do today. If the president liked you, he’d ask, “You guys want to be on my label?” and hold out a pen. I liked that era much, much better than today.
Sadly, those days are gone.
Long gone. Warner Brothers bought Atlantic, because Ahmet had signed the Rolling Stones for 13 million dollars. Warner didn’t particularly want Atlantic, but they wanted the Stones, so they had to buy the label to get them. They left Ahmet in place, so he had money, all the control - he could do anything he could have when he owned it, but he didn’t have to worry about making payroll anymore.
EDITOR’S NOTE: 13 million dollars in 1970 would be worth 97 million dollars in 2022.
So, that’s how you ended up at Warner Brothers. One of the ‘big four’ labels of those days came in and gobbled up the smaller label in order to get their crown jewels.
Yeah, but the producer they gave us was shit - our first album was abysmal, and they were gonna drop us. We got this form letter from Warner Brothers saying that the album had sold 6 or 8 thousand copies. Back in those days you needed to sell at least 30 or 40 thousand LPs, or they wouldn’t continue your deal. On this form letter, even the signature of the Warner Brothers president was made by a machine – nothing was real. I’m sure that they sent it to every other band that they were getting ready to fire. It was basically a “Fuck You” letter.
But there’s a twist: they also included a cashier’s check for $1,000, and a note that said:
“Please go to a local recording studio and record a demo with three songs, so that we can see if we want to renew your contract for a second album.”
In other words, “you’re about to lose your record deal.”
That must have been a heavy blow. One moment you were on top of the world, with Eric Clapton telling the president of Atlantic Records to sign you, getting a deal in your dressing room, and then a few months later, the corporate types at Warner Brothers are about to drop you. Your dreams were going up in smoke.
I took it seriously. I really worked hard. We had a song called “Yes, I’ll Say It.” We played it live at this big 16-track barn in Framingham (MA) called Angus. Recording artist Andy Pratt (“Avenging Annie”) was involved with it. Great studio. We recorded it ‘live’ and we double-tracked the horns. We sang the background parts live, too - we did everything live. We were a live band. Cutting a songs one track at a time didn’t work for us. It was a big huge barn, and it was good for that kind of shit.
Back when we were recording that first terrible album for Warner Brothers, I looked at the producer and I said to myself, “this guy sucks. I could do better.” I became a fly-on-the-wall in that studio from that point forward, watching and learning everything that I could. I was a session player, so I was there a lot. I was trying to learn how to produce a track.
And now, your back was against the wall. But I’m guessing that you didn’t give up.
Damn right, I didn’t. At that moment I became an engineer and producer. ‘Change this mic. Do this. Don’t do that. Okay, double-track the horns – double-track the background vocals.’ I played the rhythm guitar in an open tuning, and then I went to a regular tuning to play the lead. After the setup and rehearsal, we recorded the whole thing in maybe 20 minutes. We used the second take on the record. I mixed it in about ten minutes. We sent the demo to Warner Brothers on one of those quarter inch 7.5” diameter open reel tapes with the plastic reels. Dropped it in the mailbox and crossed our fingers and toes.
A week went by. Maybe longer. We didn’t hear anything back, so I thought ‘Oh shit, we lost our deal.’
At the same time, I knew that what we sent them was good, so I was hopeful. Time went by, and I stopped thinking about it. We kept playing shows and doing what we could do. Life went on.
A few weeks later we were driving back from Vermont. Vern Miller, the bass player and co-founder of Swallow, and I were talking about how we had to find a new record deal.
By the way, Vern played with Barry and the Remains. They were the opening act on the 1966 Beatles tour. They played 37 shows with the Beatles, including their final stadium concert performance at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. He was on the Ed Sullivan Christmas Show In 1965.
Vern’s done it all. He was my mentor in the rock and roll business. He’d had a bunch of hit records already. He even had a band with Donna Summer, which is interesting. Vern and I were the de facto leaders of Swallow at this point He was been the leader at the beginning, but then he started leaning on me as time went by. He said, “I thought you did a really good job with that song – it sounded good.” Vern is still a very dear friend of mine.
We had been playing a kind of “mini Woodstock” up in Vermont, out in a cow field on the back of a flatbed truck with about 15,000 hippies in attendance. They used to do shows like that all the time. We were on our way back to Massachusetts, about at the line where Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire meet.
In those days we lived at a place called ‘The Big Red House’ at Commonwealth Avenue and Center Street in Newton, a Boston suburb. There was always music happening at our place. Folks like James Montgomery and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter dropped by regularly.
Anyway, we were listening to the radio in the truck, and the DJ says “We’ve got the new hit single from Swallow, and it’s charting at #17!”
Warner Brothers had taken the demo that I mailed them, mastered it and released it! By the time I heard it, it was already on the charts. The record company was so arrogant that they didn’t even tell us that they were doing it.
They put out a 45 RPM single and took a piece of crap off our first album for the B side. So, the first song I ever produced was a top 20 hit. It’s crazy, but I didn’t even know that it had been released until it peaked at #17 in the early Summer of 1972.
I suppose that in true corporate fashion they didn’t let you produce the second album. That would have been the smart thing to do, right?
They didn’t. The second record didn’t do too well, either. It was not well produced. By that time I had built an 8-track studio in New Jersey. I did another gig with a band where we played in a hotel for the whole summer in Chatham (Cape Cod, Massachusetts) because it was such a great gig.
We were making like $600 a week, with free room, drinks and food. We only played three nights per week, and we got this beautiful room a block from the beach, so it was like a paid vacation. That’s the last time I actually gigged.
We put the band together and rehearsed at my 8-track studio. I recorded the rehearsals. Even with the band before that I was recording them. Do you know how to get band good real quick? Record your rehearsals and shows, and then study the tapes. I used to bring a 4-track recorder to our shows, so that if somebody played something stupid, we could go back to the hotel to listen and learn from it.
Steven Tyler of Aerosmith is famous for recording their rehearsals and shows, and then being a real taskmaster with the rest of the band. But it took them to the top. Ringo also recently said that if Paul hadn’t been a workaholic, the Beatles never would have made it out of Liverpool. It’s a business, after all. But about your recorder, I bet it was the same one I had: the TEAC A3340, with the 10 inch reels. I made a lot of terrible demos on that deck. But I learned how to write and arrange on it. It weighed about a million pounds, and I seat-belted it into the back of my car and drove it down to Charlestown to track at my drummer’s parents’ basement. I think I had about 10% of a clue of what I was doing.
But that’s how you learned, right? I heard your demos: you knew how to write a song, and you got real good at arrangement. Our keyboard player had a small mixer with a stereo output, and I put a couple of Beyer dynamic mics up on the light trusses. With those four feeds I could record the band pretty clearly. During playback after the show, the drummer would play something stupid: too busy. I’d just look at him, and he’d say, “Yeah, I won’t do that again.” Some of these things you don’t even need to say. Sometimes today when I am working with someone, before I tell them what to do I bring them back into the control room and just let them listen. I don’t need to say a thing: playback is like a look in the mirror. The easiest way to get somebody to do the right thing is to let them listen to the playback. Let them hear it for themselves.
A lot of times something sounds great when you’re doing it, then when you play it back, you realize that it wasn’t. That has happened to me both at shows and in studio sessions. Try as I might, and despite decades of experience, I can’t always be objective in the moment. Our ears can lie to us, but not the playback.
Your ego can lie to you. Your ears can lie to you. But what’s coming out of those speakers is God’s raw, awesome and honest truth.
For sure. So, what did you do then?
I was in that band just to make money so I could build my studio. I already had some money from selling the Gibson Explorer. Then my grandmother died, and I inherited a little more money. But a studio costs a lot. I was in the band making a some money. My wife was a teacher, and she was tending bar on the weekends at a big disco in Cranston, Rhode Island. We were bringing some in cash. I knew what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t playing bars any more.
I threw in with my friend Vern and a couple of other guys. We got a place in New Jersey right over the George Washington Bridge, because that was a good place to build in those days. It was less expensive than New York City proper, and you could get a lot of overflow from bands who couldn’t afford the studios downtown. We could charge less than them and still get some big bands to come in and record with us.
I know you’ve you’ve done a bunch of remote recording, such as flying off to Switzerland to record a live shows for some major acts. Could you talk about that?
Oh, yeah, I loved that. The first time I went, Billy Cobham brought me over there to record Jack Bruce and Friends. It was the Montreux Jazz Festival. It was Billy on drums, David Sanchez (the keyboard player from Springsteen who was actually a brilliant jazz player), Alan Holdsworth on guitar, Jean Luc Ponte on violin. But the problem was Jack Bruce himself: he was just drunk. He had a fretless bass and he was playing out of tune.
I listened to a rehearsal playback from the day before, and Billy Cobham asked, “what do you think?”
I said, “If you want a real record, you’ve got two options: One: get a fretted bass for Jack, because he’s drunk and he’s playing out of tune. Or, two, sober him up for the gig.”
Billy said, “Well, I can’t sober him up. And I doubt that I can talk him into using a fretted bass – I don’t think he’ll do it.”
We didn’t have any auto-tuning technology back in those days. Plus, an out-of-tune bass would be leaking into every other mic on the stage, so there’d be no way to fix it. As a result, that record never got released. But Billy’s personal band was the opening act, and that was a huge record. That was the same drums, same backline, same sound check. It was fucking incredible.
The room had a great big NEVE (mixing board) like the one in New York. This was the new Montreux Festival Hall, because the old one burned down as described in the Deep Purple song, “Smoke on the Water.”
The song mentions the Rolling Stones mobile recording truck in the lyrics, and the casino burning down. “Some stupid with a flare gun, burned the place to the ground,” the lyrics say. They also mention “Funky Claude was running in and out, pulling kids out the ground.” I believe that was Claude Nobs, the Montreux Jazz Festival director, who helped evacuate guests. They never caught the guy who shot a flare into the ceiling that burned the entire place to the ground. Luckily, no one was killed.
You did your homework. What were you, in junior high school that year? I’ve got at least a decade on you (laughs). In the new venue they had built a control room with a big NEVE console and a couple of 24-track Studer tape decks, so we didn’t need a remote truck anymore – a recording studio was built right into the place. Queen owned it. It was called Little Mountain Sound when I was there. The Montreux festival would run for about three months, but during the rest of the year, Queen used it as their studio and rehearsal space. They could reconfigure it to be a studio or a venue with about 4,000 seats. They rented it out when someone wanted to do a ‘live album at Montreux.’ Tons of bands did just that. You can find ‘Live At Montreux’ recordings all over YouTube.
That was my first trip to record a show in Europe. When you’re recording ‘live,’ one thing that sucks are those great big side fills (on-stage monitors, so the band can hear themselves). They put out all this regurgitated sound – and it feeds right back into the drum mics. They make it impossible get a good drum sound for your record.
To fix this problem I built Billy a headphone mix on the NEVE, and put a Crown DC 300 (amplifier) with a really good, loud set of headphones. I asked Billy if he was OK with it, and he said, “are you’re kidding me? This is like being in the studio! I can almost never hear like this when I’m playing live!”
Billy approved, so I talked to the stagehand who was doing the monitors. I pointed to the side fills and told him, “These things are off! The drummer doesn’t need any monitors.” But a little while later I was in the control room and the president of Elektra Records, Bruce Lundvall, was behind me. He’s the guy that signed Norah Jones deal that resulted in her first album that won a bunch of Grammys.
Editor’s Note: Norah Jones won six Grammys in 2003: Best New Artist, Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album, Record of the Year, and Best Female Pop Performance. And since then she’s won more Grammys and been nominated even more times.
Come Away With Me was Nora’s first album. It sold over 20 million copies. I met the engineer at Sear Sound on West 48th street. He told me it was a 4-day live demo. I did an album with Peter Wolf at Sear Sound in 2001 called Sleepless. Norah did Come Away With Me there at about the same time
But anyway, back to Montreux. I brought up the drum mics on the NEVE and I heard all this noise. I checked the overheads, and sure enough, those fucking monitors had been turned back on! There was a Frenchman on the stage who wasn’t paying attention to what we had done with the headphones for Billy.
I went back down to the stage because there’s no way I could communicate with anyone down there. There was no talkback system, and it was a long way down there. So I went running all the way down from the top right part of the theater. It’s a long way down the aisle and then around to the back of the stage. I found the Frenchman and said, “Hey, buddy – turn those fucking monitors off! We don’t need them, and they’re gonna ruin my record.”
He just looked at me and said “Fuck off, American.” He was an arrogant guy. I went around to the back of the speakers and tried to unplug them, but they had locking connectors, and I couldn’t unplug them. However, when I arrived at the airport in Switzerland the day before, I had treated myself to a brand new, very shiny and very sharp Swiss Army knife. You probably know what came next: I cut those damn cables into confetti. The next day the Frenchman probably wondered why his monitors weren’t working. They must’ve had to do eight hours of soldering to get those suckers back on (laughs).
But he had left me with no alternative: I had to make a good record. I had the president of Elektra Records sitting behind me and listening to every note. If it sounded like shit, that would have been the end of my career.
By this time the room is filling up and the band is on the stage. So I go running back to the control room, and I hear Billy counting in the first song, “One … two…. “ and by the time he said “three” I had hit the record button and the tape deck came up to speed, a fraction of a second before the first note was played.
Bruce Lundvall was sitting on the couch behind me, smiling.
“I was wondering when you were going to get back here...”
Afterwards he congratulated me, “You did a good job – it sounds great,” and he took us all to dinner after the show.
The first recording was Billy Cobham’s band, and it came out great. The Jack Bruce and Friends set wasn’t good because Jack was drunk and playing out of tune, so that one never got released.
That was the first time I ever used a NEVE. If you’re an American engineer, everything’s upside down on the NEVE, so you need to adjust. That was around January of 1981.
The next time I went we did this whole European trip. I did the Lugano Jam in Lugano, Switzerland down by the Italian border, pretty close to Milan. It was a beautiful place – a great big opera house. A thousand seater, much nicer than Montreux, actually. They had really high ceilings and balconies. Beautiful. Just incredible to look at.
Like the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s a gorgeous room. They don’t build halls like that anymore.
Exactly. No one can afford the thousand craftsmen it would take. But we had to get a truck for that one because they didn’t have any recording gear in that old opera house. The producers asked me what they should get. I had just heard the Peter Gabriel record that was done on the Mobile One truck from London. I had also heard the ACDC rock record, also done with Mobile One. So a few days later the Mobile One truck came over on the ferry from England.
I had to mix in the truck, which didn’t have any reverb plate. However, I had a pair of U87 (microphones) at the top of the stage. The ambience in that room was so beautiful, that all I had to do was bring up those room mics and I got the best, most natural reverb ever.
That’s when I started building acoustic chambers at Normandy Sound. I like EMT plates, but I never really liked digital reverbs that much. I started using real reverb then. At the same time Steve Smith took me to the Power Station, where Bob Clearmountain had converted a back stairwell into a natural reverb chamber. They had reverb chambers all over the place.
Thanks, Phil. We’re only up to the early 1980s, and your career was just getting started. This interview will be continued here in my blog at www.grant-maloy-smith.com/blog In the next segments we’ll be talking about your Grammy wins and platinum selling albums, and the rest of your journey.
END OF PART 1