Sound Advice: Phill Brown’s Musical Odyssey

Sound engineer Phill Brown has an astonishing musical CV. He tells Jason Weaver how to keep it rolling

“I was there!” exclaims James Murphy in LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’, before listing his crucial interventions in the history of rock music. But Phill Brown’s ‘right place and right time’ memoir of his career in the studio reveals a man who really was there. Few people were in the room when ’Sympathy for the Devil’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ or ‘Stairway to Heaven’ were recorded – and Are We Still Rolling? provides a fascinating background to each of these. Fewer still were responsible for the sound of such inspirational records as Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock or John Martyn’s other masterpiece One World – containing as it does the sublime ‘Small Hours’. This is the man who helped create the atmosphere on many of my favourite records and literally soundtracked my life. Phill’s book has a chapter on each.

Are We Still Rolling? is incredibly lucid. Rather than a sex and drugs exposé, the book is a kind of travelogue through the past four decades of British music. Brown’s elder brother Terry worked at Olympic Studios and let him sit in on sessions such as The Yardbirds’ ‘For Your Love’. In November ’67, Phill began his own apprenticeship in sound engineering at the same studio, working on albums for Dusty Springfield, Leonard Cohen, Traffic, and The Small Faces. With certain classics, it is unthinkable that they could sound any other way, but the chapter on Beggar’s Banquet tracks the many variations of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’: “The first version of the song started off lightweight – almost as a country ballad… They tried a 6/8 tempo with Keith moving to electric guitar, and then progressed to Bill playing a cabasa, while Keith played bass… The sessions progressed slowly, as the band worked out different arrangements and approaches.”

After a brief sojourn in Toronto, Island Studios in Notting Hill was Phill’s home for much of the 70s. Here, he honed a style and helped shape many of the records I grew up with. In addition to the Island Records roster, there were visits from superstars in waiting: “Listening to the final version of ‘Stairway to Heaven’, it’s hard to imagine how bad some of the playing and tuning was. There were many loose timing mistakes and wrong notes from Page, and the control room atmosphere remained intense”.

Although Are We Still Rolling? is full of interesting characters and incidents, the three chapters on the Talk Talk / Mark Hollis albums are where the real gold lies. Having sold two million of copies of their album The Colour of Spring, the band decided to expand on the experimental elements of that record. Their record company, EMI, expecting another huge seller, gleefully let them get on with it. Phill originally met Talk Talk producer and ‘fourth member’ Tim Friese-Greene on a Tight Fit session. As the book amply demonstrates, Mark Hollis is a genuine perfectionist and it seems he was interested in the ‘vibe’ Phill helped to create on early Traffic records. The recording of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock makes for an incredible story. More outrageous is how these were treated by EMI and then Polydor.

Are We Still Rolling? is a valuable insight into many aspects of the music business, particularly how the balance began to shift unfavourably to the ‘business’ end of things during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Brown decided to go freelance and has openly welcomed the revolution in indie labels. But the book is also a crucial primer on how music sounds. In terms of experience and recording wisdom, this book is unique and could not have been written by anyone else. Mentally, I followed a parallel story as I read it, memories attached to particular songs and albums and the moments I cannot help but associate with them. I hadn’t known these threads were connected by a single person. I’ve a lot to thank the man for.

You came up through a ‘watch and learn’ apprenticeship system with masters like Glyn Johns. Do you think it’s best to learn in real situations?
Yes, it’s still the best way – and many assistants who have completed the technology courses start in studios and spend years watching and learning. Making records is not only about the technology. It’s dealing with people. You can’t be taught that. I did some teaching in the late ‘90s at a music tech college. I did not enjoy it much and was aware then of the little chance of the students getting a job. I did, however, teach recently at ACM in Guildford and it was a great experience. But it’s rare for me to teach.

You had a near disaster working with Bob Marley. It seems to be a job that doesn’t tolerate mistakes. Is this a defining trait of the job? Are there certain skills that can’t be taught?
You get few chances in life – and have to roll with them. Only so much can be taught or picked up through watching and listening. I learnt so much the first time I did a session as an engineer. Mixing also takes years to understand, and so does dealing with events musically, technically, and emotionally. You only get a few chances – if you mess up too often, you’re out!

The London music scene of the late 60s seems to be a very small pool with the same faces and studios coming up again and again. There’s a story that Jimmy Page was on four fifths of the sessions conducted during the mid-60s. Was there a point when you noticed this small pool getting significantly larger?
I worked with Jimmy Page on many sessions during 1968. There was a hardcore bunch of ‘rock’ musicians including Clem Cattini, Ronnie Verrel, John Paul Jones, Big Jim Sullivan… I think things snowballed from 1968 onwards – not sure when it all started, but by 1974, there was a wide collection of players. This grew through the ‘70s and ‘80s but, due to the way records are now being made, many of the great session players are no longer in studios. Some are on the road, some making library music, many doing pub gigs…

The late 60s also brought with it the idea of studio craft as art. Was it a golden age as far as your concerned?
Yes. It was fantastically exciting trying to make those records on four- and eight-track machines. The golden age for me, though, was probably the 1970s: 16- and 24-track, loads of great studios, artists, musicians, etc.

Mick Jagger (who comes across as something of an opportunist in the book) has taken to saying that the era of income from recorded music is over now. What do you make of a statement like that?
I think he is absolutely right. The ‘music business’, as it stands right now, is over. We are all making and selling albums without major record company backing. They have almost shut up shot, apart from ‘pop’.

The amount of work someone like Jimi Hendrix got through in just several years is breathtaking. I know Bob Dylan laments the amount of time it takes to record these days. Is it possible to create a faster and more spontaneous studio environment now? With the unlimited options of digital technology, would you say that a more limited studio forced engineers to be more creative? Limitation as the mother of invention?
Yes. It makes you be creative and make decisions. Very important. I love limitations. When Calum MacColl and I are working together, we often set limitations: recreating the approach of using tape with the three-take rule (after three takes everyone decides which one to go over, rather than just keep recording more versions). Also, with Talk Talk, we set limitations: using specific gear, time frames, etc. Some of the studios we used in the States in the ‘70s were basic in many ways but sounded fantastic. You don’t always need the latest gear.

I should imagine that you can’t help but analyse every bit of music when you hear it? Have your ears ever become a curse and got in the way of enjoyment?
When I’m working, I’m focused right inside the songs. But if I’m listening at home, for pleasure, I don’t analyse too much. I still have the ability to enjoy great and poorly recorded albums. It’s all about content.

It was interesting to read about certain sessions, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, it seems impossible to imagine those records sounding any other way, yet you talk about the hours and variations that went into those arrangements. What do you think about the record company mania for releasing outtakes and demos? Should an album be a complete and definitive piece of work?
Yes. Once the band, artists, producer, etc, are happy with the end result, that’s the album! I’m not a great fan of outtakes, remixes, demos – only in rare cases. I think it was right to release Nick Drake’s ‘last album’ demos.

For me, reading the book was also a personal journey. What would be on the mix tape of your own life?

  • The Mikado: Gilbert and Sullivan
  • Pet Sounds: The Beach Boys
  • My Generation: The Who
  • Stand: Sly and the Family Stone
  • Magical Mystery Tour: The Beatles
  • Tea for the Tillerman: Cat Stevens
  • ‘Sailin’ Shoes’: Robert Palmer
  • What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye
  • Fourth Symphony: Gustav Mahler
  • Blood on the Tracks: Bob Dylan
  • ‘After the Flood’: Talk Talk
  • ‘Romance’: Beth Gibbons
  • Country Life: Show of Hands

Much of what you do as engineer is commonly assumed to be the producer’s job. Could you briefly outline the difference between the roles? In reality, do these crossover much?
Involved question because there are so many different approaches to production. Producers such as Jimmy Miller or Shel Talmy did not touch the desk or talk technical. They were ‘vibe’ merchants. Steve Smith had been an engineer and artist and became a great producer in the 1970s by putting the right people together in the right studio and guiding events. Then we have the Chris Hughes / Trevor Horn approach of the 1980s – with lots of high-tech control and relying on some great engineers to make their ideas happen. It’s more blurred today with everyone being an artist who can engineer and probably self-produce. A producer’s job is to book studios, check band / song arrangements, control overall sound, look after budgets, etc. The engineer may get involved with any of these but his main job is to concentrate on sounds.

There are quite a few celebrity producers. Do you feel that the studio staff are unsung heroes? Is there much discrepancy in pay?
Huge. But there always has been. A rough ratio: assistants £50-£100 per day, engineers £300-£500 per day, celebrity producers £5,000-£20,000 per song.

What are your favourite examples of great engineering? Are there any records where you just can’t figure out how it’s been done?
Endless. I love many Beatles records – great sounds, Pink Floyd, ‘60s Beach Boys, Portishead, and on and on… I know how they do it, but it’s excellent.

Different styles of music often use different kinds of studio. ECM records, for example, are very bright and seem to have been recorded in ‘stony’ studios that give an almost chilly sound and favour the higher frequencies. I know Mark Hollis mentioned your talent for placing instruments. What would you say are the other trademarks of the Phill Brown sound?
Air – reality – raw.

I know some electronic musicians like to feed their material through analogue equipment to add some warmth. People talk about the home recording revolution. How necessary is acoustic space to the sound of a record? Is this overlooked in the bedroom set-up?
Everything can be faked today, but I love great sounding rooms. This is not part of today’s recording. A great room, a good mic, and an analogue desk – that’s my preferred system. The new systems are great and, if used as a recording machine, excellent. But every time you add a plug-in, it degrades the original signal. Better to get the sound right at source. Overall, modern recordings sound pretty good. Too compressed and hyped maybe, but that’s the times we are in. Nothing bold, though. Some artists and musicians are working outside the norm. Pop has a big pull, though – especially due to Simon Cowell’s bullshit TV show. There will always be an indie / underground scene.

Do you have a home set-up? Did you never want to start your own studio?
I have a great listening room with five pairs of speakers, ranging from Tannoy to B&W. I also have a Pro Tools rig and an old 3M 24-track machine. I have built three studios for various people but I have never wanted to own and run one. I have no home recording / mixing set-up.

A fascinating (and surprising) theme in the book is artistic loss of confidence, both in your own career at times but also felt by other musicians. Is this a necessary price of creativity or do you think it is more about a lack of support from record labels, managers and so forth?
It’s a necessary price… I always want better. I don’t blame record companies or managers. I’m rarely satisfied.

Thanks to the book, I tracked down a copy of the Murray Head album (Nigel Lived) and have always felt that, great as his output could be, John Martyn had incredible potential. There are many tales of unrecognised or unrealised talent in the book. What could have made it easier for these people?
Wow! Loaded question. It’s often about timing. In Murray Head’s case, I think that was initially the problem, but over the years, Murray managed to piss off musicians, producers, record company execs. John Martyn was such a talent but on self-destruct. David Malin (another great talent) did not want success. Jess Roden… there are lots…

Are there any remaining ambitions? Have you never wanted to originate a project of your own? Which musicians and studio staff would be on Phill Brown’s dream project?
I have few ambitions at this point. Survive long enough to see my grandchildren grow up. I will probably continue with the same approach. Try to find a cool artist and make a great album. I did that last year with Jake Morley. But the dream: out in the country with a control room that has a retractable roof. Open to the sky. With the English funk brothers: Simon Edwards, Martyn Barker, Calum MacColl, Mikey Rowe, and John Evans.

Certain projects only get a mention. What was the criteria for inclusion? Why do you think Robert Plant has a clause of secrecy? Did you get legal advice for the book?
I originally started about 38 stories… ones I could remember well. No real criteria. I’m sure it’s a standard clause with Robert Plant. Dido was also displeased, due to her signing privacy clauses. The book went to LA lawyers and had rewrites and updates.

Five Key Moments (out of many):
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: ‘All Along the Watchtower’:

In January 1968, Phill Brown sat in on the first sessions for this iconic single: ‘I did not realise it at the time but Hendrix was already moving away from his original Experience trio. There was no sign of Noel Redding, and Hendrix way playing bass guitar himself. In the control room there were about half a dozen people, including… Roger Mayer. Roger was a technical boffin who made electronic gadgets, including distortion boxes and wah-wah pedals. George [Chkiantz] was supposed to be assisting, but in reality he was a key influence in the discussions with Roger about fuzz boxes and various effects, and made a significant contributions towards the sounds that were achieved’.

Bob Marley and the Wailers: ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ (from Burnin’):
Now working for Island, Brown was part of the 1973 team helping to finish Marley’s second album. At one point, it was necessary to made some edits on the track and the studio was cleared whilst Phill completed the job: ‘As they filed out, I was handed half a coned joint by Family Man. “Hey, you’ll be needing this,” he said and with that I was left to it. The first edit went okay and I moved on to the number two. Having marked it with a white chinagraph pencil, I laid out the tape in the EditAll editing block. The joint was in my mouth. Suddenly a small explosion (probably caused by popping seeds) took off the end of the joint. I watched in horror and slow motion as the glowing debris coasted down towards the editing block. Even before it touched the tape I could tell we had a major problem.’

John Martyn: ‘Small Hours’ (from One World):
By 1977, Brown was experimenting with recording outdoors, with Martyn’s effects-laden guitar playing across a lake. ‘A further two Neumann U87s were placed close to the water’s edge, as far aways as our leads would allow. These picked up the sound of the water lapping and a distant “strangled” sound on the guitar, which was perfect for lead guitar solos… these quiet hours before dawn created the most magical atmosphere for recording… The outside mics not only picked up the guitar coming back across the lake, but also recorded scurrying animals, birds and the sound of water lapping at the water’s edge’.

Talk Talk: ‘Ascension Day’ (from Laughing Stock):
Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden album had been recorded in near darkness with and oil projector and strobe for lighting. Months of painstaking sessions, building sound and stripping back had been a strange adventure. Thinking that they had the method under control, Brown returned for the follow up in 1991: ‘I find it very difficult to describe the “space” that we traveled to during the making of this album. The combination of continuous darkness, the oil projector (which made everything I looked at appear to move) and the process of listening to the same six songs over and over again, put me in a very dark emotional state… the three of us often went for hours without talking or looking each other in the eye.’

Mark Hollis: ‘Inside Looking Out’ (from Mark Hollis):
Phill returned to the studio for his third project with Hollis in 1996: ‘Mark talked about his idea for an overall sound. “I want to capture a 1950’s jazz approach, with the feeling of a complete band playing live around you – you know, everything on one mic and standing up for solos. How can we bring that approach up to date?” Rather sarcastically I said, “We could make it stereo”.’

A full list of albums, artists and projects can be found at www.phillbrown.net

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3 Responses to Sound Advice: Phill Brown’s Musical Odyssey

  1. Chris says:

    This is a great read, and a fascinating account of the some of the most important (and unheralded) moments in pop/rock. Listen to Phill’s engineering on the first Robert Palmer album, it is spectacular.

  2. Jason Weaver says:

    Glad you liked it, Chris. I was amazed to find out how many great records Phill was involved with.

  3. Great book – especially for anyone who’s spent time in a recording studio.

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