Ethan Johns learned his trade from the best in the business, but it's his own talent that has kept his production skills in demand.
Few record producers have served quite as remarkable an apprenticeship as Ethan Johns. The son of Glyn Johns, whose long list of credits includes the Rolling Stones, the Faces and the Eagles (and, more recently, Ryan Adams and Band Of Horses), as a kid he remembers sitting in on sessions for the Who's It's Hard and the Clash's Combat Rock at his father's home studio in Sussex. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, from the age of 10, he became obsessed with music, and asked his dad to begin to teach him about the art of recording.
"I have incredible memories,” he says. "I used to hang out a lot, watching, watching, watching, learning, learning, learning, picking up everything that I could. I remember specifically Glyn teaching me about field patterns on microphones and how to line up a tape machine. I really valued my apprenticeship, for obvious reasons. Glyn being one of the finest rock & roll recording engineers that ever lived, you pick up a few things. Not just technical stuff, but also watching every aspect of record making.”
These days, the 43-year-old Ethan Johns has built up an impressive list of production credits himself, including Kings Of Leon, Ryan Adams, Laura Marling, Ray LaMontagne and Tom Jones. In addition, he has finally made his debut as a recording artist in his own right, with an atmospheric, stripped-down country and blues album, the knowingly titled If Not Now Then When?
As a producer, did he always harbour a secret desire to become a singer and songwriter himself? "No, no,” he insists, "because I was playing all the time. I've been a musician and a writer all my life and that was the thing that got me into production. I was a drummer, guitar player, bass player and keyboard player before I began making records for other people.”
As a young musician, Johns played guitar and drums with the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Hiatt and ex-Marillion singer Fish, chiefly through connections made by his dad. He shrugs off any accusations of nepotism, however. "Well, nepotism doesn't work if you don't have the talent to back it up,” he points out. "You're not gonna walk onto a Fish session and do a half-arsed job and stick around. You're gonna last five seconds. And do you think John Hiatt's gonna put up with an average musician? I think not, mate [laughs].
"Obviously, not every gig that I did came through Glyn, but some of them did. Interestingly enough, with the John Hiatt story, I had made some demos on my own in Glyn's studio and he was driving to Memphis with John and played them to him, not telling John who they were, because he wanted an honest opinion as to whether or not the songs were any good. John, very honestly, said, 'Well, the songs aren't much cop, but the drummer's fantastic, we should get him for the album.' So I think it was with a little bit of trepidation, actually, that Glyn asked me out to play on that record [1990's Stolen Moments]. I think it's very difficult to judge your own kin's performances in a professional manner. It would have been much easier for Dad to have hired somebody he had a working relationship with that was a little less complicated. I could tell Glyn was nervous. But it worked and I could sense that it was a relief for him. We really enjoyed working together, actually, so it was very positive experience.”
By this point, Johns had already worked as an assistant engineer in the late '80s at A&M Studios in Los Angeles, helping out on U2's Rattle & Hum and Bruce Hornsby's Scenes From The Southside. But, while instructive, he doesn't remember the period as being a particularly happy one. "I didn't last too long,” he admits. "I didn't really enjoy the structure of that place, the way it was being run. It was that classic old-school thing where everyone got treated like dog shit. I just thought, 'You know what? This is bollocks.' I understand it to a degree and I don't hold any grudges or anything like that. But I remember one of the first things they asked me to do was to take a Dolby machine outside and clean out the hiss with a hosepipe [laughs]. And I looked at them, like, 'Hey you know what, guys? I may look like I was born yesterday, but I'm not gonna fall for that.' But it was good for me, actually. I needed the stuffing knocked out of me a little bit, to be honest.”
In LA in the early '90s, Johns began hanging out and working with other aspiring musicians and producers, furthering his recording education. "You make friends, you meet people and you record,” he says. "You find yourself in barns with an eight-track machine or whatever, writing with people. And then one of those guys would get a deal and the label would love the demos and go, "You should produce this record.” I ended up in that position just purely and simply because I had the knowledge. I was miking up the drums because I knew how to do it and no-one else knew how to do it.”
He admits that, in these low-budget sessions, his years of training with his dad would often prove invaluable, not least when employing Glyn Johns's famous three-mic drum setup. "Well, hey, this is it,” he grins. "'We've got three mics, guys,' and I'm like, 'OK, I know what to do with them… I can get a great drum sound with three [Shure] 57s.' It doesn't matter what you've got.”
It was in the late '90s, when working on 100 Year Thing, the debut solo album of Stephen Stills' son Chris, at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, that Johns first met the artist who was to provide his breakthrough as a producer. Ryan Adams was, at the time, the singer in alt-country band Whiskeytown, who were recording in another room at the facility. Adams was impressed by the sounds emanating from the studio that Johns and Stills were working in, and asked the former if he might consider producing his first solo album, which turned out to be 2000's Heartbreaker, recorded at Woodland Studios in Nashville. It was the first time that Johns was to showcase his trademark style, involving live performances recorded as naturally and unfussily as possible.
"Heartbreaker was done in 10 days flat, including the mixing,” he remembers. "I mixed that record on the monitor section of the Neve. There's no EQ on those mixes. I had a pan and two echoes, that's it. I had been working through the monitor section of the console and when it came time to mix, I put the tapes up back through the console and it sounded terrible. So I immediately went, 'Fuck that,' and put it back through the monitor section.”
For Ryan Adams's double-album follow-up, 2001's Gold, the pair returned to Los Angeles, holing up at Sunset Sound Factory for an intensive six-week period. "Most of Gold was written in the studio,” Johns says. "Again, considering we recorded nearly 30 songs, we worked pretty fast for six weeks. We were doing two tracks a day. It was an insane pace. I went back to do the 5.1 on that and it came to light that there were nine first takes on that record, which is pretty amazing. That just goes to show how fast we were working. We'd come up with an idea for the song, he'd write it, we'd literally play it once, record it, and it was done. Then we'd move on to the next one.”
In opting for largely live productions, Johns isn't afraid of leakage, and chooses his microphones in the knowledge that the sounds will be spilling over into different channels. "The leakage on Heartbreaker is good leakage, 'cause it was a nice room,” he stresses. "It was a [Neumann] 67 on the guitar and a 47 on his voice, and two 67s on the drums and a [AKG] D12 on the bass drum. But most of the drum sound you're hearing — probably about 70 percent — is coming through the guitar and the vocal.”
This bold technique has come to characterise Johns's approach to recording. "What you're doing is completely living with the drum sound that you get through the vocal mic,” he explains. "How you set up in the room is going to dictate the sound that you get, so you're thinking about the distances and all that kind of stuff. You're miking the kit to complement the sound that's coming through the vocal mic. It's the way they were doing it in the '50s, and it worked pretty well back then.”
As a producer, Ethan Johns tends to favour certain studios: Ocean Way and Sunset Sound in California, RAK and Real World in England. "I think I was fairly lucky, again,” he says, "just because of my obsession, that I very quickly had a room nailed as to what the character of the sound was: the equipment, the console, the tape machines. That's why I used to like working at Ocean Way, because of those [Ampex] ATR 124 [two-tracks]. Those machines are godly. They also had the Delcon, that big gold console, in B. It was really bright, incredibly open.
"Then you had the Demedio API at Sunset Sound. Again, completely different: somewhere between the Delcon and a standard API. Those Demedio APIs are probably the best all-round console ever made, I think. You could cut a country record in there, you could cut an acoustic record, you could cut rock & roll on it. Working at RAK is pretty cool, 'cause there's the API and the room is really nice and they've got good mics there and a good working tape machine.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, Johns is no great fan of compression. "I kind of went through a phase of digging it,” he says. "Sometimes it's great fun, but I think compression is extraordinarily over-used at the moment. The kind of records I like to make are capturing human performances, so the dynamics of those performances are really important. And if you over-compress, you're diminishing those dynamics, obviously. What you're doing is taking away the performer's natural way of making you more and less excited. So you've got to be really careful about how much of that you do, because you could easily find yourself doing yourself a lot of disservices in the big picture.
"I have compressors. I've got some [Universal Audio] 1176s and [Dbx] 160s. I mean, I like compression, I like messing around with it. But I'm using it much less now. Interestingly enough, with this new Laura Marling record [Once I Was An Eagle], as I went on in the mixing, I very quickly started to unplug all the compressors. If you listen to Heartbreaker, there's almost no compression on that at all. There's no bus compression on any of the Kings Of Leon records I've made, none of the Ray LaMontagne stuff, it's all completely open. There'll be minor compression on individual things. If you're recording to digital, you're compensating for the fact that there's no tape compression, so you're trying to soften things. But I tend to record to tape still, as much as possible.”
Though he prefers to work to tape, Johns will always make safety recordings to a digital format, preferring IZ's RADAR over Pro Tools. "It's a bit more natural-sounding to me. Pro Tools is OK, but it can be quite 'sharp'. This is where I'm going to get myself into all kinds of trouble, but Pro Tools should be called Amateur Tools really. Because the truth of the matter is that the only reason why that's become as successful as it has is because it allows people that can't play and can't sing to make records.
"RADAR is not as user-friendly as an editing tool. But you'll find that people like Daniel Lanois use RADAR because it sounds good. I have a Pro Tools rig, because there are times when you go, 'Man, I really need to do some serious editing here.' I mean, I'm never gonna turn my nose up at any tool that allows me to achieve a result that I have in mind. But I like to do as little editing as possible. I want people to play it right, perform it right, that's what I'm trying to achieve. So 90 percent of the time the most editing I'm doing with Ryan or Kings or Ray is we'll do three takes, four takes of a song after we've got the arrangement right, and perhaps a middle eight will be stunning on the third take and we'll just cut that into the first take or whatever.”
Given his training, Johns isn't afraid to take a razor blade to a two-inch tape. "No, 'cause that's how I grew up doing it. Pro Tools didn't exist when I started to make records, so that's my bread and butter, Then, y'know, I went through the '90s and through the 2000s and every couple of years, somebody would go, 'Oh, they've really got digital sounding good now.' I'd listen to it and I'd go straight back to tape. So I never stopped making records in the old way. Aha Shake Heartbreak [Kings Of Leon second album] was cut on a two-inch 3M 16-track machine and it was mixed off that tape. It didn't hit Pro Tools anywhere. Youth And Young Manhood [KOL debut] never touched any digital format, it's off tape. So if there was an edit to do, I'd do it with a razor blade.”
Having gone out to various studios to produce sessions, these days Ethan Johns always returns to his Three Crows home studio to mix the results. Working with an API desk and Ampex 24-track, along with his RADAR system and Pro Tools 10, Johns favours outboard over plug-ins, his effects workhorses including the Roland R880, the Eventide DSP4000 and the Lexicon PCM70. "I haven't met a plug-in that I like yet,” he states. "I mean, I've messed with them, and every now and again we'll use one. There's a couple of chamber-y type things and plate-y type things, but the R880 does that stuff for me really well. It also does rooms incredibly well. But I've got tube compression, I've got the real thing, so I don't need the plug-ins. They're just facsimiles. If you've not got an option and you're working in your bedroom, it's better than not having anything at all. But if I've got an 1176 or an LA2A or a Pultec, I'm gonna use that. And I'm telling you now, the plug-ins don't sound anything like them. They do their own thing, and it's great, but in comparison to the real thing, they don't come close.”
The sessions for Johns's solo album were conducted on the fly, in different locations, including Real World, Snake Ranch in London, State Of The Ark in Surrey and Ryan Adams's Pax-Am Studio in Los Angeles, before returning to Three Crows. Featuring a supporting cast that includes Adams, Laura Marling, drummer Jeremy Stacey and bassist Danny Thompson, Johns says he enjoyed the experience of having the tables turned on him by musicians he had previously produced.
"The idea was basically if you were in the room, you were a producer,” he points out. "The only one that wasn't was me. All I had to worry about was just performing the song as well as I could. And sometimes we wouldn't get anything and sometimes we would. They were so supportive. I think they all appreciated the fact that I was recording the record in the same way that I ask all the artists that I work with to record: recording live and making commitments.”
Of Danny Thompson's near-legendary double bass, pet name Victoria, which has been used on sessions with everyone from Pentangle to to Kate Bush, Johns says that the instrument produces such a rich sound that he might have used any microphone. "I could have put a 251, a 49, a 50, a 47, a 67, a C12, a 57, a D19, anything on it, and it still would have sounded fucking amazing. No question. It's really easy. You just put any mic you want in the general vicinity and you will get the best bass sound you ever got. This is the key thing, this is something important. If you want to get really simple and you want to know about the art of engineering, this is something every engineer needs to understand: the only way, in my opinion, to get a great bass sound is to have a great-sounding bass player. I only know this because I've been lucky enough to work with great-sounding bass players. People hear Danny Thompson's bass sound and they go, 'Can you get me that sound?' And the answer is, 'No, I can't.' It's the way he plays it, and it is the most remarkable sound.”
When it came to the mixing of If Not Now Then When?, Ethan Johns handed over the tapes to his dad, who completed the album at Sunset Sound. "If there was one person I was gonna trust, it was him,” he says. "I love the way he mixes. It's so honest and so straightforward and unfussy. He mixed that album in four days. He's so instinctive. There's a song called 'The Turning' on there, and I couldn't have imagined it like that if I'd tried. There's no compression, there's nothing. He's got tape slap and a plate or a chamber and that's it.
"But particularly because he didn't record this, there were a few things that he did EQ. But to be honest with you, I didn't really notice that. What would tend to happen was I would sit with him initially while he got the faders up, and if he had any questions I would answer them. But then I would leave the room and let him do it. Then he would come and find me and say, 'OK, listen to this.' He'd play me what he had and if I had no comments, which invariably I didn't, he'd go, 'Great, OK.' Then I'd leave and he'd put three down and then he would leave and I'd listen to the mixes and I'd pick my favourite one and that would be it. It was as simple as that.”
Considering the great, characterful results he's achieving in his productions, Ethan Johns plans to continue ploughing the same furrow, with current projects including tracks for the upcoming Paul McCartney album and a co-production for the Heartbreakers' keyboard player Benmont Tench with his father. "I really love creating these incredibly intense moments in the studio,” he enthuses. "You cannot fake that. There's no program or other mode of working that's ever gonna recreate that. It's the coolest way to make records.”
One artist who clearly appreciated Ethan Johns' old-school approach was Tom Jones, whose career was revived by the two albums that Johns produced: 2010's bluesy Praise & Blame and its more stripped-back successor, 2012's Spirit In The Room. The latter gained its name from the atmosphere the participants felt in the Wood Room at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios near Bath. The performances on Spirit In The Room were captured entirely live, involving a small team of Jones, Johns and keyboard player Richard Causon, the singer performing into a gold RCA 77DX ribbon microphone.
"The key to that whole thing was, again, using that vocal mic,” says Johns. "Recording like that puts everyone on a level playing field. If the musicians in the room know that half of their sound is coming through the vocal mic, it really puts them in the moment. They know that they're gonna have to be playing their best from the minute they set foot through the door, in case Tom does a great performance. You can't doze off for a minute and go, 'Oh, I'll fix it later.' We can't even drop in. It's all or nothing, and it's all or nothing for everyone.
"This is one of the things that makes Tom such an amazing guy: you know he's not gonna get upset if you make a mistake. If you're walking the tightrope like that, you all know that you have to be prepared to make the odd mistake. And the beauty of it is reaching those places where you're really walking the tightrope and you're flying. There are gonna be wobbles and there are gonna be mistakes and when you know that everyone else knows that, you know that no one's gonna throw you the dirty look if you make a mistake, or get upset with you. And if the tape machine's rolling, then you've got a really powerful record of that moment. I love those records where you're hearing communication between the musicians and you're hearing that those performances are being elevated by the musical conversations in real time.”
In fact, on day one of Praise & Blame, Johns purposely neglected to inform Tom Jones that they were even recording at all. "He thought we were rehearsing,” he laughs. "He didn't notice the tape machine, he didn't know we were rolling. There was just a wedge, no headphones, so as far as he was concerned, we were just running through things. At some point, I said, 'Shall we listen to that?' And he looked at me like, 'Huh? What do you mean?' So that was a great environment for him. He almost envisaged that he was in the back room at the pub in Wales back in 1957. It was brilliant. That worked great for Tom on that particular record.”
Last year saw Ethan and Glyn Johns work together as a production team for the first time, overseeing Dead & Born & Grown, the excellent debut of Watford's close-harmony sister trio the Staves. Father and son had both discovered the group independently of one another, Glyn catching them at a gig, Ethan meeting them when they sang backing vocals on a Tom Jones session, and so decided to work on the project as a pair.
"It was very important that we did it,” says Ethan. "It was done for all the right reasons, and in the end, the girls are happy with the record, which was the most important thing. We are both very different. There are similarities in the fact that we're both very no-nonsense. We have incredibly low tolerance for any kind of bullshit. We both appreciate directness and honesty. That's the stuff that we connect on really, really well. I'm still learning from him as well. He is an absolute master. When we actually got in there on the first day and neither of us really knew what roles we were fulfilling, we had to figure it out pretty quick. I think it took a couple of days for me particularly to figure out where I was gonna slot in to the creative process, to allow the thing to roll in the manner that it needed to roll. I'm definitely a bit more laid-back and he's definitely a bit more old-school.”