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Tony Visconti: Making Music Should Be Fun

Production Lines By Tony Visconti
Published February 1994

Recording music can, and should be, serious fun, according to producer Tony Visconti.

Not too long ago I was sitting behind a state‑of‑the‑art recording console in a country famous for cultivating the nauseating idea of eating snails (but I love this country regardless). The studio was truly impressive; the console was a 72‑channel SSL G‑Series with 'Ultimation'. I was recording a singer with a Sony microphone — very expensive and resembling Darth Vader's codpiece (the mic, not the singer). The microphone was fed into a Massenburg mic preamp and equalised by Mr Massenburg's stupendous equaliser before it hit the 48‑track Sony digital multitrack. The monitors were Genelecs; in short, this studio was audio heaven!

Unfortunately, the people I was working with were two of the most miserable and arrogant oiks that ever walked the planet. To them, every aspect of their music was as precious as pearls and the singer was going through melodramatic hell, struggling to get the vocal right. From my perspective the song was quite mediocre and I said that in not so many words at an earlier stage, but they wouldn't hear of it, possibly because so much time was spent getting the 'groove' right. Since the project had gone so far, and the artists deemed this song to be a classic, we all had to pretend that the vocal was the problem. The singer had a black eye and swollen lip from a fight with her co‑writer the night before. Clearly these people were not enjoying the process of making music. The tension and egos were so thick they couldn't be cut with a samurai's sword. So there I was, sitting in the middle of artistic insanity and all of this hi‑tech equipment meant nothing. This is often a far too typical scene in studios nowadays (almost as prevalent as a group staring at a computer screen for hours and calling themselves 'musicians'). The 'groove' is everything and the song is an afterthought.

I exorcised this horrible experience by recording another artist from the same country, with the best musicians I could find from New York, London and Paris. This artist couldn't wipe the smile from his face during the seven or eight weeks it took to make his album. He often arrived at the studio before I did. We are now great friends. But what was the difference between the two projects? Honesty! The second artist was clear from before he even met me about what type of album he wanted to make. He and his co‑writer ruthlessly weeded out the good songs from the bad songs and I was asked to help at this stage. There were dramas, of course, but there was trust, faith, and straight communication which always sorted out the problems. We planned from the start to make a dream album and we intended to have fun making it.

Forgetting hi‑tech (which doesn't create great music, it only records it), I got my biggest jollies in the last year writing songs with Annie Haslam (ex‑Renaissance), using my old Atari/Notator program and recording Annie's sparkling voice on a Tascam 688 cassette 8‑track. Thanks to the dbx noise reduction, the vocals transferred beautifully to my Alesis ADAT machines when I decided to upgrade my home studio. Don't knock it, that's better equipment than The Beatles used to make 'She Loves You'.

So where is this essay leading? I'm tempted to bin it for a start, but I always have to remind myself that making music, recording it and sharing it with others, is serious fun. When you think about it, music is the only art form that exists in a state of vibrating sound waves through air, and then ceases to exist when it stops — unlike a marble statue or an oil painting, which are always there (unless they are destroyed). That alone sets music aside as a heady phenomenon. I always have to remind myself that music makes people sway in unison, tap their feet, cry inexplicably and associate key memories from their lives when hearing a 'golden oldie'. The sounds emanating from a guitar or a sax, and especially a human voice coming from a great artist, often implants a truly magical moment in both the lives of the artist and the beholder. Originally, recordings saved us the ordeal of travelling to a concert hall. Modern recording techniques, of course, enable artists to express themselves in a way in which they are never able to in a concert hall, as we all found out upon hearing 'I Am The Walrus' by the Fab Four for the first time.

Music, first and foremost, is fun to make and fun to listen to. It is not primarily a vehicle to provide limousine service or to get your face on the front cover of every journal relevant to fame. Of course that happens if your music is truly great and your star‑making team behind you is really hot! But many of the great artists I have worked with (Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Phil Lynott, et al) went for the fun part first and the limousines came much later — as a tax loss. But I'm not kidding you or myself, the music business is a business and financial success is important to sustain the ongoing recording process and the artist promotional machine. It's how you make that great music which brings great rewards! From all of my experience I have truly learned that 'good vibes' make good music. Marc Bolan used to be too excited to record a take before he would let me finish getting a drum sound. David Bowie would carefully choose his musicians for every new album and, like an alchemist, revel in the oddest outcomes by mixing musicians from the most diverse backgrounds and genres. Phil Lynott [of Thin Lizzy] turned every recording session into a full‑blown party — he simply performed better when people were watching him. As a producer I had to behave responsibly and get things happening, but it was easy to be tolerant because I anticipated the sound of magic when it was about to take place — no party‑pooper, me!

Record sales have never been lower, apart from the small group of super‑duper artists that sell in the multi‑millions, such as Mariah Carey. But there is almost no middle class, sales‑wise, in the record industry anymore. There are many possible excuses — Nintendo and Sega are more fun... but aah! That's my point. How many artists and record company executives are equating music with genuine entertainment these days? I can tell you that most of them are contriving to be or looking for the next Nirvana or U2, instead of investing in some honest, down home originality and variety! It's either Metal, Rock, Rap, R & B or nothing. 'Alternative' was the buzzword in '93, but hardly anyone in power was quite sure what that meant. Have record companies become that shallow?

I have the good fortune to work in the world's greatest studios and I possess a compendium of ADATs, computers, digital audio software, Gigabyte hard drives, vintage guitars and basses, rack‑mounted black boxes that challenge the London Philharmonic, and other great stuff. But they would all be junk if music ceased to be a source of serious fun for me.

Tony Visconti's production credits read like a 'Who's Who?' of the music industry, having worked with many major artists over the years — including David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Thin Lizzy to name but three. He is based in New York.