Over the last 30 years Tony Platt has engineered and produced albums by some of the biggest names in music, from rock to reggae. Tom Flint talked to him about his days at the pioneering Island Studios, his work with legendary producer Mutt Lange and his vision of the future.
The powerful riff‑based heavy rock of AC/DC seems a million miles away from the laid‑back rhythms of Jamaican reggae. The two musical styles appear culturally and instrumentally poles apart — and for some people, that is more than enough reason to believe that such different musical genres require totally different production techniques and producers. However, Tony Platt, who cut his teeth engineering Bob Marley and The Wailers' Catch A Fire and Burnin' albums before going on to engineer for Robert John 'Mutt' Lange on AC/DC's 16‑million‑selling album Back In Black, may beg to differ.
"I probably haven't done my career as much good as I might have done if I'd stuck to one particular musical genre," admits Tony, "but I like a wide range of music. Some of the techniques I used in the reggae recordings have been very useful in rock recordings, and vice versa. I think my role as a producer and engineer is to gain as many techniques from as many places as possible, because they are all going to be relevant at some point. Technology is a classic example of that. There are people who have recorded the kind of music that I've recorded over the years, who have not wanted to know about technology. As far as I'm concerned, the best thing to do is to absorb as much of it as possible. If I understand it then I can make it available to artists that I work with. So I think that locking off musical styles is a very negative thing to do.
"When I started there was so little technology that would work for you — you had to start with something that was halfway decent in order to get the best out of the media — and now the problem is that it has gone the other way round. Now there's too much of a reliance on technology. It's the tail wagging the dog. Technology is fantastic and I love it, but I love to utilise it to enhance the music. I do not like the technology dictating. Ultimately you can get to a point where you can have a combination of the two."
Tony's open‑minded approach to music and production has enabled him to work with an impressively wide range of artists since the start of his career in the late '60s. Of the heavier rock artists he has worked with, the most notable names include Iron Maiden, Samson, Krokus, Foreigner, Gary Moore, Uriah Heep, Cheap Trick, Dio, Motorhead, The Cult, Marillion and, of course, AC/DC. His list of reggae production and engineering credits also makes impressive reading and, apart from the aforementioned Bob Marley albums, includes Toots & The Maytals, Aswad, Cimarons and Mau Mau. Rock and reggae aside, Tony has not been afraid to try his hand at other musical styles ranging from blues (Buddy Guy) to industrial (Die Krupps, Spinegrinder) to drum & bass (Low Pass) and indie/alternative (Fubar, Streem and Flowers For Breakfast).
Yet Tony might never have made it into the studio at all had he followed the career advice offered to him at school, which suggested options such as the army, navy and the civil service. It was only Tony's growing enthusiasm for music which led him to link up with a local band. It soon became apparent that the group wanted him more because he owned a van than for his abilities as a musician, and he spent most of his time fixing the PA and messing around with tape recorders. However, this experience only served to fire his enthusiasm for the technical side of things, so following a visit to the BBC's Radio One studios (where he became fascinated by the vast racks of equipment), he soon began applying for studio work.
"I wrote a lot of letters to studios over a long period of time. I'd got no answers back and was about to consider another career when two replies arrived in the same week. I had both the interviews in the same day and was offered both jobs. I took the one that was at Trident and began as tea‑boy.
"The only gear they had then was microphones and compressors, but they were still quite cutting‑edge because they had an eight‑track tape recorder. Whilst I was there they got the first 3M 16‑track machine, so I got a little bit of experience operating one of those."
It wasn't long before Tony chanced upon an advert in Melody Maker for an experienced tape‑op to work for Island Studios, a vacancy which Tony found particularly exciting as he was a big fan of the Island label. Once again, his lack of experience didn't prevent him getting the job. "Up to that point I had made a lot of tea, got a lot of sandwiches and operated the tape machine about three or four times," laughs Tony. "It was a bit of a blag, to be perfectly honest, but so much of this industry is. It's sticking your neck out and hoping you can back it up.
"I remember the first week I was in there I walked into the studio office and there was a big board up with all the sessions on. I think Free, Led Zeppelin and the Stones were the bands that were in during the following month and a half — I thought I'd died and gone to heaven!"
Not only did Tony's time at Island offer the chance to work with the top rock acts of the day, but it also brought him into contact with a large number of freelance engineers and producers from both the UK and the States.
"I had a very good chance to really see how lots of different people went about recording and production," says Tony. "People like Glyn Johns, Andy Johns, Bill Halverson, David Anderle, Richard Perry and Shel Talmy.
"My mentor in terms of ways of recording was probably Glyn Johns. He is one of the prime creative engineers from those early days. He recorded a lot of the Stones' and the Who's great albums. From him I learnt to record drums with three microphones — a bass drum mic and two overheads. Predominantly we used Neumann U67s, which was the valve version of the U87, for the overheads, and the favourite bass drum mic was the AKG D20, which sounded like the D112. To be honest, most of the microphones have not changed to this day and ironically, a lot of people are going back to the mics and vintage compressors that were used when I first started recording. They're popular now because they're basic, straightforward and they don't compromise the sound.
"I learnt how a session ran, microphone techniques, editing techniques and the different techniques engineers used to create effects. There weren't any digital delay lines and all the echo was done using echo plates and tape machines. For those days it was cutting‑edge, but by today's standards it would be considered quaint and vintage.
"But the emphasis was quite different then: it was on the music and the musicians rather than on the technology. The viewpoint was that the musicians created the music and you used whatever means possible to capture the music, the mood and the atmosphere. And you can hear that, if you make a comparison between some of the stuff that gets recorded now and some of the stuff that was recorded then and listen to the atmosphere. Take something like BB King's 'Mannish Boy' recorded by Johnny Winter, for example. You can hear everybody whooping and shouting in the background in the studio — instantly you're there, and you can imagine yourself in that place. Apart from notable exceptions like Portishead, that feel seems to be sadly lacking in a lot of recording nowadays, because nobody really pays much attention to recording more than just the sound itself.
"I think there's too much dependence upon the final mix and I don't think enough thought and preparation goes into the processes that go on beforehand. The mix should begin the moment you start recording, by moving things around, balancing, blending and creating sounds. It means you're creating a coherent piece of work rather than recording a whole series of events any old way and then fixing it in the mix. Obviously it's possible to do that, but you're putting off too many decisions until the end, and as a result of that it lacks any sense of purpose and there tends to be no depth to what's created in that mix."
Achieving the warmth and depth that Tony values in a recording is, he feels, all about creating the right ambience. This, in turn, demands that the engineer be good at managing spill and separation in the studio. "Separation is obviously important, but most important is that the nature of the bleed from one instrument to another is in context with the instrument that is receiving it," explains Tony. "If you've got guitar sound going down the drum microphones, you don't want it to be a guitar sound that's going to compromise the guitar sound that you eventually want. If you have a nasal guitar sound coming down the drum mic but you want the guitar to sound big and warm, then one could compromise the other so it's necessary to be aware of the fact that you don't just have to blend the primary sounds, you also have to blend the ambience of those sounds.
"For example, I recorded an album with Buddy Guy some years ago. Buddy was doing his guitar and his vocal live in the room most of the time. I had the drums completely open in the middle of the room, the bass was separated in a booth so there was a little bit of leakage into the main room, but not a great deal. The organ and electric piano were in a glass‑fronted room so the whirring sound of the mechanics in the organ's Leslie cabinet didn't get into the rest of the recording. Buddy's amps were in a large separate room with the doors open so some of the guitar sound came out into the main room. Buddy could then stand in front of those doors and hear it naturally. His vocal microphone was just on the edge of that room so we got quite a lot of bass drum coming down his microphone, which helped the bass drum to sound unbelievably good.
"Using this method I had a dilemma to deal with which was if, at a later date, I replaced any of the vocal, it would change the ambience on the bass drum and the change would be noticeable. My solution was to put another microphone right in front of Buddy, pointing at the bass drum, and record that on a separate track so if ever I rerecorded any of the vocal I could push that microphone up in the mix and fill that ambient gap.
"Normally you'd expect to spend about a day mixing one song but John Porter and I mixed four of these in a row because we'd recorded something that had an ambient connection. The recording had a balance so once we were locked to that, everything opened up and the mix was right in front of us. We went back to the main building at Battery Studios where they were two weeks into mixing Bryan Adams' 'Everything I Do I Do For You' and going round and round in circles. They they had recorded everything as a series of events that were individual and not necessarily connected by any ambience. If you record separate events the mixing process is going to be much longer because you have to create an ambient connection between the guitars and the drums and in order to do that you have to use various reverbs and effects. If you then, say, introduce a piano back in the mix it disturbs the connection between those two instruments, so you've got to go back and modify that ambient connection in order to incorporate the piano. You could get right to the end and find the vocal doesn't sit in it at all. You've then got to strip it all down and start again. What really puts a mix together is what you do with the spaces between the instruments — whether you leave them open or fill those spaces to get a coherent mix. I think of it as 'ambient glue'."
Tony first discovered how to make use of ambience when recording while working with Bob Marley and The Wailers on their 1973 album Burnin'. "When I came to do the Bob Marley recordings for Burnin' I was a little concerned, because that was the first time I'd worked solely with Jamaican artists. I'd mixed the Catch A Fire album, but that was recording little bits to add to the track that had come over from Jamaica. The main thing that I was concerned about was the bass sound that they got which was just so amazingly elastic, so I had a chat with Bunny Wailer about it. He said when they set up in Jamaica they had all the amps pointing at the drums with the drums in the middle. Doing that, the bass just goes over everything and it was one of those times when I realised that ambience and leakage can be your friend if you work with it."
In the mid‑1990s Tony decided he wanted to try out new recording techniques and musical styles and began producing work by industrial band Die Krupps — but even in this hugely different context, Tony's 'ambient glue' was the key: "They came to me with some stuff recorded on ADAT, some sequenced in Cubase and some on analogue tape. We compiled it all onto digital multitrack but there was nothing there to stick all the sounds together. They sounded like they had been recorded in different places at different times. Galaxy Studios has this massive recording room so I put a huge PA up in there and I used it as an echo chamber, with mics the other end and a couple of gates on it. Depending on how quickly I shut the gates down I could vary the perceived size of the room. I had a little bit of the guitar part and a little bit of drums played into the room and I used that ambience when I wanted to stick the drums together with the guitar."
Despite his enthusiasm for old‑fashioned recording values, Tony is not afraid to incoporate new technology and techniques into his work. He believes Robert John 'Mutt' Lange (with whom he worked on Back In Black, as well as albums by Foreigner and The Boomtown Rats) to be a perfect exponent of the art of combining traditional recording methods with modern technological aids. "Mutt has a unique appreciation of the feel of music, but he also has a nagging desire for it to be as perfect as possible," explains Tony. "He went through a period, during the AC/DC recordings, of aiming for the best feel possible. Obviously what he did with the arrangements and the vocal perspectives and things like that was absolutely amazing, but it was still about recording the rawness of that band. Later he did the Cars' Heartbeat City album which has 'Drive' on it — that, to my mind, was one of the best singles ever. It's a perfect piece of recording, and subsequent stuff that he's done like Def Leppard was absolutely perfect. Now he's reached a stage where he's able to play both of those approaches off against the each other. But there are not many people who are capable of doing that.
"I learnt the art of vocal production from Mutt: how to deal with singers and how to draw the best out of them. A guitar player can change his strings or amplifier, and a drummer can change drums and sticks, but a singer has only got one voice. Psychologically that's not an easy place to be, and it's the most difficult thing that a singer has to deal with. So a lot of it is about putting the singer at ease, and you do that by establishing communication. The worst thing you can ever do to any musician, especially a singer, is stop the tape and have complete silence. The moment you stop the tape you need to be pushing the talkback and making some form of communication. It's a lonely place on the other side of the glass and the first thing the singer is going to want to know when the tape stops, especially in the middle of the song, is how they are doing. It's of absolutely paramount importance to maintain that communication.
"Mutt was always very careful not to intimidate the musicians. I remember on one occasion when we were recording another band, we spent a long time trying to get a bass part. Mutt is a bass player himself so I know he could have gone out and played the part in two minutes flat, but that would have been very intimidating to the bass player and might have destroyed his confidence completely. So Mutt was quite prepared to sit there for the best part of a day and coax the bass part out of this guy."
One of the talents of any good producer is the ability to recognise and choose a good engineer for a recording session. Aware of Tony's work at Island, Mutt Lange asked him to work on AC/DC's Highway To Hell and Back In Black albums. "Mutt's capable of doing the engineering," says Tony, "but he's more of a musical producer with a good technical knowledge. He had heard the rock stuff I had done at Island with the various solo projects from Free, and it was that Island rock sound he was after, and ways of achieving those sounds. By the time I became involved with the Highway To Hell album they had already started the recording, so I was asked to mix the album at Island studios.
"The AC/DC drum sound that evolved from Highway To Hell was partly a result of being recorded in an extremely dry studio with very little ambience — and partly due to my solution to that problem, which was to play it back out through the studio at Island to add natural ambience. On Back In Black there was also a particular sound that I thought we should go for with the guitars. I developed a technique for recording guitars with two microphones roughly pointing at different speakers, which can be spread out in the stereo mix so it's not just a series of mono point sources. It makes for a more open‑sounding guitar. That sound suited their particular technique, which involved Angus and Malcolm playing the same chords but with different inversions to get a very big unison guitar sound."
Despite the efforts of both engineer and producer, however, Tony is adamant that the real secret to the AC/DC sound is the band themselves. "Obviously Mutt helped with the arrangements and everybody pitched in a bit with lyrics on Back In Black, but they're a raw, gutsy band with great songs and a great attitude. We had to get that down onto tape with as little compromise as possible."
After Tony left Island in the late 1970s he joined the Zomba production roster as a freelance engineer and producer. More recently, he's become involved in a North‑West London‑based multimedia business venture called DAT Productions. The facility offers a full multimedia production service, from the planning of a project right through to CD, DVD and 5.1 surround mastering. The company was started as a reaction to changes in the music industry affecting the role of producers and engineers: "I'm very aware that the industry has changed almost beyond recognition in the last five years. The process of producing records and the attitude of record companies to the process of production has altered to the point where a record producer is expected to organise everything. Artists who send tapes in to record companies will be told 'We'd like to hear a bit more, so write some more songs and do some more demos', and that can go on for an extraordinarily long time. They want everything already developed and prepackaged before they're prepared to sign something, so somebody has got to take on the responsibility of doing that.
"As a producer you find yourself working for free. Even if you do speculate on something and eventually get it signed, the time it takes is so long that it really wears you out. So my attitude now is that there has to be management. I don't mind producing, arranging and engineering stuff but I won't manage them as well. That's not to say I particularly like that situation but I'm a realist and that's the way it is.
"When CBS was just CBS, they earned money making and selling records and that money came back to fuel future releases. Now CBS is owned by Sony, the profit goes back to the Sony mother company who decide the budget allocation for CBS. So you don't have the self‑financing circle.
"I think the music industry is going to become more and more of a multimedia industry. We have the Time Warner, EMI and Sony conglomerates signing artists who have a multimedia capacity. The idea behind DAT productions is that we have a team of people with the skill base, the technology, and the creative urge to be able to coordinate various types of production that are now more the norm. So we offer a production coordination service which can extend from just organising facilities for people to actually running the entire production."
It's the logical culmination of a career which seems to have been based around seeking out and embracing new musical styles, techniques and technologies, while incorporating the best elements of the old. Tony Platt readily mixes modern and vintage, analogue and digital, blues, reggae, rock, indie and industrial, and seems driven above all by the desire to avoid getting stuck in a rut. "Years ago there was an engineer from the old school who would walk into the control room, set all the faders, put the mics out in the room, and dial the EQ up on the console before ever listening to anything," he says. "It was always the same musicians and it would sound exactly the same every time. There are contexts where people applaud that, like the Tamla Motown story, where the desk setup was petrified in one place and nothing ever moved, but the main reason why I left Island in the end was that one day I found myself putting the bass, drums and guitars in the same place in the same room and I thought 'I'm in a rut here.' So I decided that would be the time to move on."
It seems Tony Platt has kept on moving ever since.
Tony Platt has worked in a huge range of musical styles — and some of his best‑known work is distinctive for combining influences and techniques from apparently disparate genres: "Bob Marley's Catch A Fire was recorded in Jamaica, then dubbed onto a multitrack for the addition of some more instrumentation. It was producer Chris Blackwood's idea to incorporate American and English rock musicians into the reggae, so you had people like 'Rabbit' Bundrick who was the keyboard player in Free and subsequently in the Who, and session player Wayne Perkins playing against the reggae. The subsequent Marley sound came from an amalgamation of Western white‑rock techniques with good solid West Indian reggae.
"Once while recording one particular heavy metal band I suggested putting an acoustic guitar on the record. The guitarist's retort was very Spinal Tap. He said 'Acoustic guitars in heavy metal? You've got to be joking!' Then I pointed out to him that all the Who albums had acoustic guitars sitting underneath Pete Townshend's rhythm guitars to make it sound bigger, and he didn't believe me. It's a very strange subjective viewpoint."
Apart from the extensive facilities at DAT Productions, Tony has his own core of equipment built around an Apple Macintosh running Emagic Logic Audio Platinum, M Audio Delta 1010 converters and a Digidesign Pro Tools system for audio editing. Tony explains the reasons behind his choices .
"I used Cubase a lot to lock to tape machines, but I had a series of circumstances where it wouldn't synchronise properly. I spent two days in a very expensive studio trying to make it work and Steinberg couldn't give me any definite answers as to why that was and I wasn't prepared to compromise the artist that I was working with any more. As good or as bad as Cubase is, it's no use to me in a professional capacity so now I use Logic which does lock properly. I use that for MIDI, but I don't find the audio editing facilities on Logic easy or creative to use, whereas Pro Tools is the best editing platform, in a creative sense, it's a fantastic way to edit audio, but I don't particularly like the way Pro Tools sounds. By itself it sounds acceptable, but if you compare it to other things it doesn't scrub up terribly well.
"If there's a context where the flexibility of Pro Tools is going to enable me to do what I want creatively then I will go for Pro Tools. I had a circumstance at the end of last year with an alternative‑sounding band called Fubar. I found a studio that had exactly the right environment, but they had ADATs which are fine for project studios, but they are a semi‑professional medium. I knew it was going to take a lot of editing so I hired an Otari RADAR machine to do the recording. That worked fantastically and it was exactly the right tool to do limited amounts of editing between takes. The studio also had a Pro Tools 48‑track system so we made a comparisons between the RADAR and the Pro Tools and, audio‑wise, the RADAR was significantly better. I wanted to do some audio manipulation on the tracks that we had and the Pro Tools was the best way to do that.
"Eventually I chose Pro Tools for the editing because I knew I could compensate for that in the audio path and I was getting the advantage of the audio manipulation. That's a classic example of weighing up the pros and cons of all the different formats. There is this mentality that flies around both inside and outside record companies that if you haven't done it on Pro Tools, it can't be any good because it's the buzz word — and that's wrong. It's the tail wagging the dog again. I know there are occasions where it is used in the wrong context."
Tony describes one particularly frightening example of misusing technology just for the sake of it. "Four or five year ago I was working for a band on the same label as an R&B artist. The R&B guy had recorded his stuff in Italy and the producers had put it into Pro Tools. Then they'd taken his vocal performances, chopped them all up and moved them into time. He nearly hit the roof when he heard what they'd done. All the little soulful moments where he'd played with the timing had gone. He was out to kill the producer. I had to hire a Pro Tools system to run all the files to find out what had been done. Eventually we went back to the analogue recording where the source was best of all and came to the conclusion that the only reason it had been put into Pro Tools was because it was there. They hadn't run out of tracks on the analogue and there were plenty of takes to make comps from. Everybody was saying 'The analogue sounds brilliant, let's use that.' I'm sure that misuse happens a lot.
"Analogue recording is not a perfect medium, but you can either complain about that fact or you can utilise it to your benefit. Essentially you have to use the tape compression and the tape speeds to get what you want. If you record at 15ips, the NAB equalisation [NAB stands for National Association Of Broadcasters] gives you a bass enhancement, so things tend to sound a lot warmer. At 30ips you get less hiss and the top end is a little clearer, but you get a roll‑off at the bottom end so it's not quite as deep‑sounding. I prefer to record at 15ips to get the enhancement at the bottom end while using Dolby SR to get over the hiss problem."
Tony has strong views on what skills a musician should bring to a recording session and where the responsibilities of the producer and engineer stop and those of the musician begin.
"The stupidest thing that any musician can do is to just plug in and play and say 'make that sound good'. It doesn't work like that. I will always say to the guitar player, for instance, 'Is that sound coming out of your amplifier the sound you want to hear? If it isn't, show me what it is and we'll try to get somewhere close to that before we even put a microphone on.' It's a waste of everybody's time to sit there tweaking stuff until somebody says 'Oh that's good.' If they come into the studio with no idea as to how they want to sound, or how their songs or arrangements are to be, it means that as an engineer and producer I've got to spend a large proportion of my time putting all that stuff in order to make it a reasonable recording. That's time and energy that would be much better spent working on something that already starts from a higher point.
"I'm all for people getting into recording music because it's a great thing to do, but if that is your chosen career path then you should spend a bit of time and work out how to do it properly. When I say properly I'm not standing in judgement saying that's right or that's wrong, there are a million different ways to skin that particular cat, but it should be approached as a skill and you should take it as far as you possibly can. Don't approach it with the attitude of 'Oh well, that will do,' because that's not good enough."