Who helped re-define rock guitar? Pete Townshend, that’s Who.
To describe Pete Townshend as “iconic” would be a bit of an understatement; Pete Townshend is “definitive” in the world of the guitar. For the past 40-plus years, Townshend has stood at the epicenter of what is widely regarded by rock fans as one of the greatest, and most influential, acts of all time — The Who. From being named by Rolling Stone as “possibly the greatest live band ever” to topping the Guinness Book of World Records listing as “the loudest band in the world,” The Who have embodied the spirit of take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred rock and roll throughout the years — a stance that’s seen the group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and winning the Freddy Mercury Lifetime Achievement in Live Music Award in 2006, among countless other honors bestowed from musical institutions worldwide.
But this is all well-circulated information, the likes of which can be found just about anywhere. Digging deeper into the world of Pete Townshend, one will first find accounts of his highly regarded literary work, his spiritual endeavors as they relate to the Meher Baba movement, his penchant for charity. But through the media haze of all the ill-fated guitars and extracurricular activist delving is Pete the Producer — a side of the musical mastermind not often publicized.
Getting onboard long before the home recording revolution hit, Townshend began dabbling as a self-producer even before The Who became a household name, demoing personal projects and tinkering with various technologies all in the name of creating compelling recordings of music that, at the time, didn’t appear to be commercially viable. And he never stopped. Through the heyday of The Who and through his career as a solo artist, Townshend has been behind the board for it all — amassing a collection of gear and trying his hand at nearly every technique, every possible recording medium, along the way.
Staying current, yet adhering to the approaches and philosophies of recording that helped make him one of the most successful musicians of the last century, Townshend has learned a lot about the world of modern recording. Whether it’s working in his home studio or abroad, Townshend is never shy about wearing the hats of both musician and recordist. Nor is he hesitant to talk about it with those who share his passion for making albums. And while what he has to say may shock some, it will undoubtedly awe all by offering the kind of perspective that can be gained only by years in the trenches writing, performing, and recording hundreds of songs, forming a rock legacy that’s not likely to be overshadowed in our lifetimes.
- EQ: Not many people know this, but you were one of the first recording artists to have a home studio, which makes you the pioneer for the millions of people doing the same thing now. How difficult was that to achieve back then?
PT: I can think of a few people who preceded me. A Dutch fellow called Wout Steenhuis, who lived in Britain and used to appear on European TV, playing along with himself on a guitar and tape machine. Les Paul, of course, may have appeared to have a mainstream studio, but it was certainly designed entirely to support his own creative playing and composing. My friend Andy Newman (founder with John Keane, Jimmy McCulloch, and myself of Thunderclap Newman) used a stereo tape machine to record from track to track, and I first heard his multi-layered mono recordings at an event at Ealing Art College in 1963.
My most important entry into the pro technology world happened in 1963 with the recording of my first published song “It Was You.” This was recorded at the TV composer Barry Gray’s home studio. He was a family friend of Peter Wilson, the lead guitar player in my first school guitar band. Barry had set aside the entire ground floor of his modest semi-detached suburban home as a fully-equipped studio with EMI tape machines, mixers, echo devices, and so on. I asked him a few questions and it quickly became clear that my modest experience with tape machines, mucking around at home the way we all did in those days — most people used tape recorders to record songs off the radio — could lead to something special.
Later, when I shared this idea with The Who’s new manager Kit Lambert in 1964, he immediately told me about the very sophisticated tape machines they used on film sets — Nagras — that were finer even than studio machines, and had the advantage of being battery powered. Kit and his business partner Chris Stamp had both worked in films. Kit told me a Nagra costs as much as a car, but there was another cheaper machine often used on studio stages where mains power was available. These were rugged, military-spec machines made by a British electronics company that specialized in public address systems. They were called Vortexions. My first acquisition was two mono machines; I did not need a mixer because you could blend the microphone input with the line input. I used old Reslo ribbon mics left over from The Who’s career as a pub band. Thus I made my first demos for the Who, trying hard to do as well as Barry Gray had on “It Was You.”
My first real Who demo was “Can’t Explain,” made before I got the Vortexions, on a domestic tape machine, and it was a kind of Bob Dylan meets Mose Allison thing, with me whining away with an acoustic guitar. I have lost that tape sadly (I later revamped the song as more Kinks-like when I heard their producer Shel Talmy was interested in us). Once I started with the Vortexions, I became more careful about tape logging and archiving and I have almost everything I ever did. A lot of the demos I did were comic in nature, or very light-hearted. I did them for practice, to test a new room, or mic, or whatever. I intended to build a proper soundproofed room at one point; it was a dream of mine. I bought materials and drew up plans, but The Who got very busy on the road, so instead I simply recorded without it and got thrown out of a series of very cool apartments as a result. I moved up from mono machines to two stereo machines, and some of my earliest demos are stereo — bounced from machine to machine. One of the first and the best is “Substitute.”
It wasn’t until I got to my apartment on Wardour Street in early 1967 that I found a place I could make as much noise as I liked. It was a commercial room, so the buildings around it were empty at night, when I did most of my work. It was here I got my first mixer — a little filmmaker’s Uher, and a Grampian spring reverb. A little later in this same room I supplemented my Vortexion machines (that ran at 7.5 ips) with two Revox G37s. These ran at 15 ips, and they sounded superb. I had no idea at the time about aligning them, and just experimented with different types of tape to get the best sound.
What helped me make a huge jump was meeting Pepy Rush in SoHo — he lived around the corner to me. He was building pro-quality transformer balanced equipment for various people. He had been employed by the notorious “Magic Alex” of Apple fame at one time to do designs, and he still has the design for what he says was the very first fuzz box he made for John Lennon — though the first I ever saw was the one Jimmy Page used on “Bald Headed Woman,” the B-side of the Who’s first single “Can’t Explain.” Pepy explained to me that I needed to rationalize my crude patch bay with properly balanced 600 ohm inputs and outputs, and attempt to insert them into 10kHz bridged tape machines. He provided me with boxes for my Revox machines that allowed this. He also built me a valve limiter. I still have it. I have two today that I still use. This was huge step forward for me. Until then, the sound of modern pop had been a mystery. Few engineers had been willing to divulge that it was the limiter/compressor that made music sound so hot in the pro studio, and not their amazing talent. Later he sold me my first valve mixer, eight channels, stereo with passive Baxandall treble and bass, and a panpot and echo send on each channel. It had a really clean, warm sound. I recorded the Thunderclap Newman record at home using that desk.
Long answer then, but it was relatively easy to create a home studio given the people I came across, and the state of the nation at the time. I just followed my instincts and was helped along the way by some very cool people.
- EQ: How do you feel about what seems like the democratization of recording, where currently, one no longer needs to have a large budget in order to realize their music with some semblance of fidelity?
PT: I think it is the most wonderful thing. No one thinks twice now about the fact that they can shoot a good little movie, or take a good photograph. Why shouldn’t they make a good recording? For the composer, computer tools present a dilemma. For most people, creative ideas emanate and are nurtured on the right side of the brain. However, technical matters are dealt with on the left. So one immediate problem is that before we can get creative with a computer we have to do things like organize our tracks, create a file, make sure we have somewhere to store it, etc. Being able to just run a tape machine (analog or digital) on a whim, always set up and ready to go, is a good thing to have in your life. Or you could have something like an Edirol R09 digital recorder handy. Try to stay in the right side of the brain until the music is properly shaped. Then computers (and compact microprocessor-controlled digital studios) are wonderful to arrange and modify what you have composed. For me, tape machines offered a way for me to compose, not to record great music, but merely to write it — as I had no other way of doing it.
Of course those people who work entirely within the computer environment, using loops, MIDI, samples and reflex-driven software like Ableton Live, can get used to making very frequent jumps from one side of the brain to the other. But the music they make tends to sound a little different to the kind of music most of us feel reflects something of the heart. There are many exceptions. This is not a rule, but I often urge musicians I meet who love to work with MIDI software to try some of the old methods — however, getting a decent tape machine is not easy, nor is it cheap.
- EQ: Do you have any advice for the people who have decided to forego the use of professional studios and make their records at home?
PT: Tricky question. It would be wrong to generalize. Everyone works in his or her own way. I would say try to keep your recording system as simple as you can. Don’t be tempted by software upgrades if you are in the middle of a project that is going well. Wait for the break. If you can, start with something — whether acoustic or sampled or synthetic — that inspires you, and stay close to that first inspiration and make the process about honoring it. Something happens at point zero in the creative process that is special, and is easily muddied by process or self-indulgence. On the other hand, you have to enjoy the process, so if getting it muddy makes you happy — go for it. We all enjoy our own demos more than anyone else on the planet . . . because we were there throughout the whole process.
Do you notice that I use the word “demo”? You asked what advice I would give those who want to make records at home: If they want those records to sound like well-regarded records made at a certain time, they may need to emulate the equipment used rather more exactly than software designers are prepared to admit is achievable. An emulation of an RCA ribbon mic is not going to sound like an RCA ribbon mic. Only Wes Dooley can come close today, and his mics cost a lot. But good mics cost a lot. When The Who made our cheesy first recordings at IBC in London, we were using mics designed for symphony orchestras — posh stuff.
So, if you like “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, find out where they made it. If possible find out what mics they used, what tape machines. For example, Phil Spector’s famous mono recordings were often made — but nearly always mastered to vinyl — at Gold Star studios in Los Angeles. They had a very cool mono reverb room there that sounded better than any other in the world. They weren’t sure how it happened. There was some trash on the floor in the corner they didn’t dare move. Now what was cute was that they could fold in reverb into the actual cut on the vinyl. So they could take a track that needed a little additional reverb color and fix it right as they cut the track. They did this to the mono of “I Can See For Miles.” There is no better version of the song. How would you emulate that today? I would say you would look at the room first. Gold Star was a big room, nice sound. Good mics, simple desk, proper mic preamps, exceptional reverb. Hear it on “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” by the Righteous Brothers.
Speakers in these pro studios were trash — we all trusted the gear more than our ears. All that stuff you get from the old boys about “we trusted our ears” . . . the speakers were so awful if that’s what they trusted they must have been hearing something different than me. Mind you, today I trust my Doug Sachs Tannoys over any modern speaker for mixing. But that is because I revere Doug; his ears were always more on the money than mine, because he heard everything that anyone was recording at any given time. That’s mastering engineers for you — their ears I have to trust. I’m talking about those old guys that tell you jazz records they made in the Fifties had something to do with their extraordinary ears. Screwy. It had to do with the equipment and the studio rooms. It was almost impossible to make a bad recording if you just kept out of the way, and pushed the faders in the right direction. That’s the gear and the way I like to work today. The best engineers will admit that they tried to make themselves transparent, not just the audio equipment.
So remember, start with a good sounding space. And if it sounds bad, fix that first. You may just have to deaden it right down. Next, buy at least one truly great microphone. Next, buy at least one truly great mic preamp. If you can, buy a single module from some old board — an API, a Neve, or whatever. If not, buy a new “classic” channel, or something as good as you can afford. Next, pick your recording medium, and use your brain. If you start with tape, use nothing less serious than a reel-to-reel Revox, TASCAM or Fostex of some kind. Don’t go over one track per 1/8 inch of tape width (1/4″ tape is good for stereo or four track, never eight tracks. If you want to work in eight tracks, the thinnest tape to use should be 1/2″. That will sound pretty good). See whether you can do without noise reduction, hiss is not the end of the world. That said, I like and have used both dbx and Dolby on home sessions.
If you start with digital hard disk, try some test sessions at different sample rates and bit depths — you may be surprised that your system sounds better at “lower” quality rather than higher because it doesn’t have to work so hard. So, use your ears if you can when making these assessments; pretend to be one of those old jazz guys who could “really” hear. I would recommend using a single pair of earphones for some of these kinds of tests. Pick the ordinary ones used in studios. Use your speakers just for playbacks of these tests and checking detail. If you can afford none of these things, buy a small tape Portastudio. Four tracks will sound better than eight. Remember that what you are doing is using a medium, not a modifier. I would say the part of any recording chain to be most suspicious of is the speakers, and the room in which those speakers sit. So a familiar pair of earphones are not just useful, they can be life saving.
- EQ: What pieces of audio gear from your original set up are still parts of your recording setup? I heard that you still use your Neve BCM-10 and a 1″ eight-track? Do you have any favorite mics?
PT: I’m spoiled. I was around when pro studios were at their peak. I kept quite a lot of my old gear . . . not all of it, sadly. I use 1066 modules in my Neve, via Pepy Rush or Manley compressors. My favorite “cheap” compressor is by Drawmer. But I’d take a brand new UA LA-4A over anything else if I were confined to a single low-budget compressor. My favorite mic of the moment is the AEA R84. My tape machine is an eight track Studer A820, 15 ips, no Dolby. I mix down onto an Ampex ATR100 using Dolby SR at 15 ips. I used to really like working on tape at 30 ips, but today I am attracted to the warmth of 15 ips.
- EQ: I’m a fan of 15 ips as well, because of the “head bump” at 50Hz. Is that what you mean by the “warmth of 15 ips”?
PT: At 15 ips I get a head bump on the Ampex machine, but my Studer doesn’t seem quite so tricky. I listen to the output of the machine in any case, when mixing to the Ampex, so I set the EQ so I am happy with what is coming off the tape, not what is going on to it. My mastering guy usually has me bring in my own machine or comes to me with his Genex.
- EQ: What tape are you using?
PT: I use [Quantegy] 499.
- EQ: What alignment are you using? I had originally stayed away from 15 ips, because I found it too noisy without Dolby, but I found using the CCIR curve for alignment solved that problem.
PT: I work as I just described, using NAB. No trouble on the multitrack, because mixing EQ will happen down the line. I also use NAB on the half-inch Ampex with 499, but I use 4 x Dolby SR so I can monitor tape output.
- EQ: Have you noticed anything about the older gear, that seems lacking in the newer equipment, that makes you continue to use it?
PT: An old Neve 1066 input module is easy to replicate, and Neve does a good job with some of their very expensive retro gear. They do less well with their lower budget stuff. The Neve name on an input module doesn’t always mean your mics will sound better than, say, via a Mackie. The modules I have to say continue to surprise me, that relate most directly to the old Neve name, are the Focusrite Red modules. They are still beautifully built. Even so, it’s tough to get the quality of components we used to enjoy in the modules of the sixties, and even those modules need work sometimes. The Blue Focusrites are great too, mostly. So paying $5,000 for an input module and then finding it start to crackle in a year’s time should not surprise you. Paying $500 for a Mackie desk (and there are dozens of other terrific small mixers that use the same kind of technology) might be a better bet.
In the U.S. you have Manley gear. It is almost bulletproof — though I’ve blown up a few of their amplifiers; they always sound amazing and their passive EQ is beyond reproach. You also have Summit and a number of other wonderful companies making retro-style gear. But if you can find an old Neve module, or can afford a new classic build, you will get that “English” sound.
That triggers a thought: “English” versus “Scottish.” There was a small offshoot from Neve called Tweed Audio. They were a Scottish firm that mainly built broadcast desks. I once worked on one of their desks and they sounded very much like Neve. Calrec, Trident, and Helios all made amazing modules. I have no experience at all with the EMI boards my friend Brian Kehew speaks about in his book about Abbey Road [Recording the Beatles], but I understand they sound pretty great.
What I like about my home setup is that I can plug in a mic, add a little EQ from my own memory bank (acoustic guitar gets a little 10kHz and a little 2.4kHz, vocal gets a little 3kHz — both would get some light compression), put a roll of tape on the machine, walk into my studio, and push record. Though in truth, I am probably recording onto an eight-track machine with a SMPTE stripe on one track so I can hook up a computer later if I need to. So I start in a “pure’” place, but I would never close the door on the need for more tracks, or some MIDI devices, later on.
I sincerely hope that what I am doing with the interview is helping to bring back the studio methods of old. I hope people will read this and think, “that’s what I want.” Where can I get it? You will probably be upset to get a bill for more than $500 a day. Get real. This stuff costs a lot of money, is expensive to maintain, but rewarding and easy to use and get good results. Getting real means something else here. If you pay $1,500 for a day in a pro studio — record lots of music! Come out with a reel of tape containing at least three great tracks. $500 a track is a good target. So use a pro studio if you know one, or stay at home if you need more control. I feel so lucky to be able to do both.
- EQ: What newer equipment have you integrated into your recording process, and what do you like about it? Or what don’t you like about it?
PT: I use RADAR digital multitracks in my home studio and my pro rooms. I like the sound of them. We use them on the road to record The Who as well. They are pretty rugged. I also use Pro Tools HD. I have experimented with various external ADCs and I can’t hear enough improvement to merit employing them. The one I know is very popular in the U.K. is the Prism. I like the sound of Genex DSD for mastering, but still prefer analog, and Jon Astley says my mixes often contain digital “spikes” that tape would crush. On The Who album, Jon and I compared Genex DSD to analog tape and couldn’t hear much difference. The tape certainly didn’t sound better. Later, Jon went down to Cornwall and I used Metropolis to do some mastering for radio. The engineer told me one of his clients brought in a 1″ two-track Ampex and it sounded glorious. I have to say I wouldn’t hesitate to “master” directly from Pro Tools HD to an analog CD recorder as long as it sounded as good as my old Marantz. Those Marantz machines have such a nice, smooth ADC in the front end. Women love them. You know those creatures that really can hear! [Laughs.]
I recently bought an SSL AWS900+ to use as a controller for Pro Tools HD and I enjoy using it very much indeed. I did some guitar recording with the analog desk part of it and was immediately transported back to the world of SSL (I was the first person in the U.K. to buy one for a pro studio in 1983 — with Eden Studios — and, of course, Peter Gabriel, who now owns the company). To get a good sound with the old-time equipment I’ve cited already, you have to do very little. With a modern SSL module, you have to work at it. The sound comes quickly, but it can often sound discouraging at first. If you work with an SSL, spend as much time as you can experimenting with the EQ modules. They can do amazing things if you get it right. My young engineers at my pro studio have all been trained on SSLs, and we have purchased one of the first Duality desks to keep them happy. This is not quite what was promised by SSL — it is not a bigger AWS900 — the modules have full dynamics on each analog channel, but it has no analog playback potential. You couldn’t use it in a multitrack tape studio, or with RADAR, without some playback sub-mixing. However, the desks of the sixties all treated tape playback with separate sub-mixing bays, until MCI taught us how to do it in line. So we have just hooked all our playbacks from tape and RADAR to a Soundcraft sub-mixer. I’ll report to you how this works in a few months.
I love some of the computer software that comes with the MIDI and Pro Tools world. The Ivory piano module is genius. Ableton Live is beyond criticism, and just gets better and better (and thus harder to use, but it’s still intuitive). Vienna’s orchestral samples, now available with their own sample player, are just superb. I was brought up with the big Synclavier library — Denny Jaeger and so on — and the Synclavier processed each sample in its own DAC line, so there was great integrity to the sounds even though the sequencer quickly got left behind when [MOTU’s] Performer came along for the little weensy Mac. The Vienna samples on a Mac sound as good as those early Synclavier sounds to me (I use MOTU 192HD units in my home studio, not Pro Tools). I love the UAD plug-ins, McDSP — so much great stuff! My favorite sequencer is Digital Performer. I have three certified copies, and use it on two computers. The lack of copy protection means I can just move my software to a new computer whenever I want to. I know this must cost MOTU some bucks. They are big-hearted people.
The process I use today is this: Record to analog tape. Transfer tracks to Pro Tools HD. Mix down to analog tape, or Genex DSD.
- EQ: I have noticed that you spend more time and effort dialing in your guitar sound than just about any artist I’ve ever seen. Would it be fair to say that your philosophy is to spend the time getting the sound right before you record it? Because it seems that a trend that is emerging these days is to record a direct guitar and then either re-amp it or use Amp Farm, or even use Sound Replacer on the drum sounds, rather than starting with a drum sound that’s even better than a sample. Have you heard the records where this trend is apparent, and what are your thoughts on this?
PT: I’m constantly struggling with my stage sound, trying to make it sound big when in fact it is small (this is to protect my hearing). In the studio, I just plug an old Telecaster into an old Fender Deluxe, shove a Shure 56A in front of it, straight into a Neve 1066 with a compressor, down to tape. I add nothing, take away nothing. I get a guitar sound in five seconds that blows my socks off. They had this stuff back in 1956. Imagine that! I’ve never tried the other methods you describe. They sound mad to me, but they might work. They sound like they would work very well on clean lead-line guitar work, maybe not so well on the grungy chordal style I, or people like Angus Young, have.
I’ve been exposed to my share of drum replacement. Chris Thomas did this on “Face the Face” on my White City solo album. He spent hours getting the drums right, then left them isolated, so they have been resampled so many times I hear them everywhere. Great noises. But that was me trying to sound like Prince — probably not a good idea [laughs]. That guy is so clever. I have now returned to mono drums, recorded with as few mics as possible.
Once we reached the massive, glorious sound of huge drums on early Zeppelin tracks and The Who’s Quadrophenia, where could you go? Bigger? How? So much incredible work was done, especially by Roy Thomas Baker, but sessions would often be arranged to allow at least a week to get a basic drum sound. Often it was the room the drums were in that mattered the most. Surely even a home studio enthusiast could haul his gear to the local gym one day? Or a church hall? Or a school? Or a river footpath bridge-tunnel? The bathroom can be good too — just set up the drums in the tub, take out all the soap and towels, and there you go. You may scoff, but I’ve done it. I’m sure I was not the first.
- EQ: There are many extremes that you can pursue, I’m sure. I read an interview with Ray Davies where he said they set up corrugated sheet metal in the hallways of a recording studio, and miked the drums from out in the hall.
PT: I’ve done that too. But there is only so big you can get. That’s my point: If an amateur drummer wants a big sound without having big resources, what I am saying is that they can experiment and get a bigger sound in the ways I suggest.
- EQ: Speaking of big, you have historically had some of the biggest and most aggressive guitar sounds on records. Can you tell us what your signal path tends to be on electric guitars, i.e., type of guitar, amp, mic, pre, compressor, mic placement, etc.?
PT: On The Who records, I often used my Hiwatt amplifiers — rarely a stack, just a head and a 4x12. Whatever guitar I happened to be using sounded good with this rig — Strats, SG Specials, whatever. The mics would usually be a Shure 56A close up, but Glyn Johns often used Neumann U87 or KM86 about a foot away. He never combined mics though, and I don’t do that either. It’s okay if you stay in mono but can create phase-shift hell in stereo, changing the sound as you combine the mics, and when the stereo is mixed down to mono on the radio or TV. I also used, and still use, a rig made for me by Joe Walsh. This is an orange Gretsch Chet Atkins, deeper body, through an Edwards light-diode 110 volt volume pedal (designed for pedal steel), into a 1956 Fender Bandmaster. This gives that grungy Neil Young sound I use sometimes. You control the distortion with the pedal rather than the guitar or the amp. I do use D.I. guitar sometimes too. Danelectros sound so clean on D.I. that they sound like crystal bells ringing. Those “lipstick” pickups are genius. I also use my current Fender Vibro King stage amps to record. They sound really wonderful I think, but a little floor compressor of some kind before the amp can help smooth the distortion you choose to dial in.
My guitar tech Alan Rogan replaced Joe Walsh as my guitar mentor and has bought me some great instruments over the years that I wouldn’t otherwise have bothered with. The one I like the best is the ’56 Telecaster. Orgasmic. Sell your house or your Picasso and buy one. Or steal mine. I would, without a moment’s shame [laughs]. These matters are so crucial, so life-changing, that this is like war. We needed their oil? We went and took it. You want my ’56 Telecaster? You need to bring in the paratroopers to claim it back for the USA. What a great country the USA. The Telecaster, the Les Paul, the Jumbo Jet. And API as well. If you do nothing else you have done more for rock ‘n’ roll and world peace than Mahatma Ghandi. I admit I might be wrong about the oil though [laughs].
- EQ: And you thank us by smashing our guitars! But back to your guitar sounds, could you tell us about how you record your acoustic?
PT: I used to use a Neumann U87, about 9″ from the guitar, carefully positioned using headphones, through a Neve 1066 module, just a little 10kHz and 2.4kHz, a little valve compression. Lately I’ve replaced the Neumann with the R84. This is a ribbon mic, so it hears the back of the mic as well as the front (figure-eight). This means you can work the sound of the room into the mix, which is especially attractive in mono.
- EQ: I’m also a big fan of the R84, particularly on horns and on piano. When you are recording acoustic, are you using the front side or the back, which has the attenuated low end?
PT: I use the front and face the back towards the open studio.
Also, I find that if you don’t have a great guitar, miking very close can help — but listen with earphones on and move the mic position in clear stages. Give yourself at least 15 seconds of silence between each new experimental mic position. Don’t assume that what sounds right in the earphones will need no further work, but every acoustic guitar has its own interesting quality. I like small-body Flyde guitars made in England, but lately I’ve also taken to Collings guitars from Austin. They are expensive but real emulations of old Martin guitars I think. I also like the Gibson and Epiphone J200 series. That body shape suits my strident strumming copied from Don Everly and the Flamenco players of the sixties.
- EQ: By the way, where do you place your acoustic mics? Are you a “mic the hole” or a “mic the 12th fret” type of person?
PT: 9″ is so far away compared to the way most engineers work that that question doesn’t exactly apply. Just somewhere in front of the guitar [laughs]. I then don earphones and swing back and forth until I find the sound that suits the chords I’m playing. This is important. When you record yourself you can do this kind of thing. The sound must fit the chords, or the notes, the guitar, and the room. Put the mic too close and you have to build the sound. Put it further away and you can simply move around until it sounds right with the track.
- EQ: In 1970 or 1971, when you were making the demos for Lifehouse, which became Who’s Next, not only did you predict the Internet years ahead of Al Gore, you also did something which was a first, as far as I’m aware of: You used synth filters (with the ARP 2500) and sequenced keyboard arpeggios (with the Lowry organ) as the underlying rhythm track for the band to play over on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley,” respectively. Where did you come up with that idea?
PT: My forward-looking notions were all implanted in me at Ealing Art College by Roy Ascott and Harold Cohen. They were able to see that computers were coming, and could also see (which is the amazing part) that they would change the way art would work, and language itself. For years I thought nothing about any of this. I had been sidestepped into mysticism and expressed some of that in Tommy. I was also involved in rock marketing and image making. By the time The Who hit 1971, the band was about to turn into a cartoon of itself; Roger dressed as a fringe topped with a curly mop, John using his fingers on the bass as though he was eating crab claws, Keith playing drums with his head on fire, laughing until he cried, me wearing a crown and a tie-dye jump suit, our managers had decided to turn to heavy drugs for amusement.
I decided to move aside and back to academia, and art school inspired experimentation with no boundaries. I was getting steeped in extraordinary ideas by people like Tim Souster, Roger Powell, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and others. I was always trying to come up some new way to process sound that would take me away from the traditional processors used in studios. I quickly found that one of the principles of electronic music was its reproduction through reprocessing systems — “myriad” speaker arrays, or swept filters. The first sequencer I worked with was in 1971, the analog one that came with the ARP 2500. Later I tried the digitally clocked sequencer made by EMS in 1973. In fact, the first filtering I did was with the little British EMS synthesizer called the “Putney” VCS3. I persuaded my genius father-in-law, Edwin Astley, to buy a couple, and he became quite adept at using them — great tool for such a gifted orchestral composer.
I just let my imagination go crazy, and people like Tim Souster, in particular, just egged me on. I can remember Tim describing aural head implants for the reception of music and information in 1971. I nodded sagely, knowing he was probably right, and of course he could be proved so any second now. He introduced me to the folk at the BBC Radiophonics Workshop and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Roger Powell and I had some incredible brainstorm sessions over nothing more powerful than a cup of tea. On one occasion we invented a contra-rotating magnetic wheel echo device combined with a moving tape loop that would record individual guitar notes and immediately play them back in reverse.
What stopped me in my tracks soon after the research and the demo recording was the fact that all these effects were impossible to reproduce live. If I had been able to work live, The Who would have turned into Tonto’s Expanding Headband. I saw a lecture at Ealing by Malcolm Cecil, one of the founders of Tonto — and he still has the big Moog I think — and he was an incredible inspiration. That would have been in 1963. Kit Lambert (pre-heroin) had been pretty wacky as our producer as well. During one session with The Who, he ran around the room holding a microphone to generate interesting phasing and ambience. The Beatles had challenged us all I think, to try new things.
- EQ: Also, ever since Who’s Next, synth pads and sequences have been part of The Who sound, as well as on your solo records. These generally originated on your demos, and then wound up on the final record from your existing demos. I don’t recall hearing this on any demos of songs that wound up on your solo albums, but I can clearly hear this on Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, and even Eminence Front. Sequencing and creating synth pads has become infinitely easier to do now, but do you miss any of the ingenuity or artistry that it took to create those parts back then? Do you feel that the soft synths sound as good as your ARP or EMS?
PT: On my solo records there are sequences on “Let My Love Open The Door,” “A Little Is Enough,” “Uniforms,” and several others. Often on my solo records the demos became the finished tracks. Creating sequenced arpeggiations should not require ingenuity. This is “found” music, like the individual elements in collages in art. One presses some keys, or fiddles around with some software or some setting on a Casio toy, and if what you hear is inspiring, fun, or interesting, you can move ahead with it. It’s what you do with it that counts.
The problem with soft synths is never their sound — they often offer superior sound to the originals and terrific extras. But the human interface becomes one you have to construct yourself. For example, the [Arturia] CS80 emulation I use is amazing. But what made the CS80 so incredible was its polyphonic aftertouch pressure keyboard that could be set to change timbre, vibrato, and even pitch both on attack and after-pressure. Each note in a chord could be made to rise or fall in level, or swell with a change in timbre. Just holding a pad could be made interesting and evolving simply by adding pressure to individual keys after you keyed and held the chord.
It is almost impossible to set up a good MIDI keyboard now with polyphonic aftertouch. The CS80 also had a great ribbon controller that could be set up to do all kinds of things. That is what gives Stevie Wonder his sound: the aftertouch on his big Yamaha GS1 organ — or me on my Yamaha E70 home organ — again, with polyphonic aftertouch on some sounds. The CS80 and the E70 were based on the GS1 experiment. The only keyboards I have that offer this now are my two Synclavier keyboards and one Kurzweil MIDIboard. Both are really tricky to set up. They are also huge and heavy, especially the Synclavier. Mind you, a used CS80 weighs about as much as a man.
Imagine being as inspired as Stevie Wonder and being placed in front of a three keyboard and bass pedal synthesizer pretending to be a home organ, with swell pedals, knee pedals, poly-pressure, great FM string sounds and all. I dream of my own “Cyber-Organ” that once I start to play joins in with me, it has dozens of keyboards like a proper Bach organ, foot pedals, integrated syncopated arpeggiation and echo, a huge “myriad” speaker array with each sound with its own output channel and patch in audio space. I spoke to Roger Linn the other day, and although he has different ideas, we both agree that the stripped-down MIDI keyboard is a limiting interface for music. He speaks of all kinds of new and exciting interfaces.
- EQ: How come you never got into using the Mellotron? Or did you try it, and decide it was something you didn’t like?
PT: They had one at IBC as soon as they came out in 1967 — the Bee Gees had asked for it. I thought it was horrible. At IBC they also had a wonderful Lowry Lincolnwood organ I used on most Who recordings instead of the Hammond. Hammond is great, but such a stereotyped and hard to manipulate sound. I prefer Lowrys, and so does Garth Hudson from The Band.
Finally, I think it’s really worth saying again, that although I like working analog, I think in some ways I’m just following a current trend, because lots of young musicians I come across seem to want to work that way too. I really believe that great new music comes from pushing at the envelope of creativity, trying new gadgets, new methods, new ways of doing the same old things. As a composer I think Ableton Live has to be the software that has given me the most immediate way to write new things on a computer, rather than tape. At the same time it allows several additional levels of creativity, including that suggestion of mine that “finding” great sounds and loops can inspire new tracks.
- EQ: Speaking of new things, Wire and Glass is the first Who record in 25 years, yet in some ways, it’s most like the demo process you followed for the previous Who records, where you would play everything yourself. Did you find yourself missing the musical input of John Entwistle?
PT: Sadly, no I didn’t. John was always very faithful to my own bass parts on demos, though of course he played them in his own inimitable way. I missed his other input — his humor, his brevity, his serenity. I tried on Endless Wire to use exactly the same method I had on the demos for Who’s Next. The departures are obvious. I couldn’t have done the Beach Boys-style backing vocals on “Fragments” without 24 tracks of RADAR hooked up to the 8-track tape machine. On my demo I mixed all 16 vocal tracks down to mono on one track. They sound cool.
- EQ: I noticed on this record that even though you were playing the bass on some songs, it sounded like you were approaching the part in a way that John would have played it, more so than the Pete Townshend-style bass I’ve heard on demos for the various records. I also noticed a drum approach that had a definite Keith Moon style. Was there a conscious effort on your part to sound more like “vintage Who”?
PT: My bass playing employed a trick John showed me just a year prior to his death: You set up the sound with a very heavy compressor and actually gently tap the strings rather than thump them hard. You end up with a much bigger sound that contains more harmonics than usual.
The drums were played or programmed by myself, Peter Huntington, and Zak [Starkey]. We all three have been hugely inspired by Keith Moon. Each of us can keep better time, even me. How weird is that?
- EQ: So, even though tracks were done on the 8-track, on 48/16-bit RADAR, and on Pro Tools, everything wound up in Pro Tools to be mixed “in the box.” Is that correct?
PT: No tracks were recorded straight into Pro Tools, maybe a vocal here or there from Roger (I wasn’t present). The basic tracks were done on 8-track — sometimes with a few tracks of 48/16 RADAR in tow — then bounced to ProStudio RADAR at 192/24. Those tracks were then supplemented in the big studio (rarely more than a few things I could just as easily have done at home, but I preferred to have the drums and Hammond — and the big bass sound by Pino — in a non-domestic environment) on the RADAR 192/24. I think Myles Clarke, my engineer at my big studio, transferred everything from RADAR to Pro Tools HD digitally. I would have done it analog. Sounds good either way. I think he wanted to avoid aliasing or something. A good way to avoid aliasing is to transfer in the analog domain, as long as you like the sound. Slavishly sticking to the digital domain isn’t always a good thing. Jon Astley might rise up in the end and say you’ve got digital “spikes” [laughs].
- EQ: What is it that you feel you get by going to analog first, and then dumping it to Pro Tools HD rather than just recording straight to Pro Tools HD? What sample rate are you using when you transfer it, and have you tried any of the external clocking devices, like Apogee’s Big Ben?
PT: Working in analog is not something I do knowing in advance I will dump into Pro Tools HD. I work in analog because I prefer the way it feels, the way it sounds, and the fact that it is a quicker way of getting music down if I’m working without an engineer. I prefer the process. It is more natural, more linear, and as multi-tracking is the way I actually compose complex pieces, it is in my blood now. If I think I can do it, and I can sometimes handle up to 16 tape tracks in an analog mixing desk, and I have the time, I will stay analog.
You had asked about the process on Endless Wire. That’s the process I used there. We went into Pro Tools at 96/24. I have worked at 192/24 and I really believe I can hear an improvement, however most plug-ins trip up at 192 pretty quickly. I did the Tommy 5.1 mixing at 192/24. As I said, I have not become caught up in too much in externals. If someone with really great hearing told me there was an improvement, I might think about it. In my own blind tests within Pro Tools, I hear just two significant changes in quality (this applies to RADAR as well). The first radical improvement is when one jumps from 16- to 24-bit, even at 44.1kHz. The second is when one jumps from any sample rate all the way up to 192kHz. At 192 the standard Pro Tools HD units seem to be at their best . . . just my opinion. So we stick to 96 unhappily, wishing our computers were faster.
- EQ: From what Bobby Pridden told me, mixing “in the box” seemed like an absolute necessity with the way Wire and Glass was done, in between shows and on the road, etc. But is there a sound that you noticed with mixing in the box and using plug-ins? Did you find yourself missing the sound of the consoles and the outboard gear you have used in the past, or were you able to achieve a sound that you felt was on par with mixing in analog? Or did you decide, “That’s one type of sound, and we are going for something else here”?
PT: It is a long time since I have mixed in an analog desk. I have had my big Synclavier since 1984 — me and Frank Zappa, Sting, and the rest. That had a built-in 16-track hard disk recorder that still sounds pretty incredible, I have to say. So often a lot of simple level adjustments could be made right inside the Synclavier with ease. On Endless Wire, I would have mixed analog, but my Focusrite desk from 1986 was on its last legs (it is now being broken up into modules), and I simply didn’t have enough reliable working channels to give it a try. I wasn’t about to go into someone else’s studio to mix. I have to say I think mixing in Pro Tools is a joy. The ability to keep tweaking a good mix, and to strip it down for TV backing tracks, to offer elements to remix engineers, to be able to email track groups across the globe for overdubs, etc. — all this is what makes it so great. The sound? I have heard recordings made by Myles Clarke on Pro Tools at 48/24 that sound as good as those I record to tape. I can’t do what he does with it. He uses some of the techniques I’ve demonstrated on the studio floor, but also has his own unique approach. So we learn from each other.
I think if there is any kind of small downside to mixing in Pro Tools (and I don’t think there is really) you might be able to sometimes “hear,” or “intuit,” the sampling process on complex reverberation sounds or something. But we combined groups of Pro Tools tracks using the Tubetech valve unit. Sounded great to me.
- EQ: You experimented with a few formats for the final 2-track mixes. What did you wind up using, and why?
PT: Genex DSD. It was what my Mastering Supervisor Jon Astley preferred. I preferred the sound of analog tape (1/2″, Dolby SR at 15 ips) but they sounded so close it was almost impossible to tell the difference. He beat me up about the digital spikes on the Genex later on. You can’t argue with the last pair of ears, even if he’s your brother-in-law. In the end the Genex disk went to Metropolis for final mastering because Jon was in Cornwall (300 miles from London) and I am fairly pleased with the results, supervised by Myles Clarke. It’s hard to tell whether going to tape would have produced better sound on CD. A CD is pretty difficult thing to get to sound “warm” (whatever that means, such a hard word to define in audio terms).
- EQ: I have a couple of philosophical questions about production. The first is that with what seems like an unlimited amount of tracks available these days, I’ve noticed a fear of commitment to an idea. When I receive a Pro Tools session for mixing, sometimes there will be four options of the same thing, where as back when I used to just get a 24-track reel, people would have to commit to production decisions, and maybe specifically think more about their direction when they were tracking, because of this. The reason I put this to you, is because you have made some of the most adventurous production decisions in rock. Do you feel that putting off decisions and throwing the kitchen sink at a song’s production can in the end be beneficial, or do you feel it’s detrimental in some way?
PT: The dual role of artist and producer could be a tricky one. If you’ve recorded at home, maybe it demonstrates humility to allow dramatic adjustments to be made later on. On the other hand if you are a hot shot big name producer, it might be that you know the record company is going want some other hot shot to remix your mixes. Pro Tools makes all of this possible, and natural. However, I think better music is made in layers when musical decisions are made as you go along. How can you, for example, add a cello part to a song that really blends when you know that someone further down the line could completely change the backing track underneath it and put it out as a solo cello record? That’s an extreme example, but musicians like to listen to what is there and work with it or against it. They work with what they have. Even so, great records have been made in so many different ways, it’s tempting to preach one method, but that would be Luddism.
- EQ: I’ve done records where the producer really seemed to go out of his way to create acrimony on the session. I really prefer making a record where everybody gets along and we have a fun time doing it. I always see one of my major roles when I’m producing as being a manager of personalities and problems, in addition to the technical and the musical aspects of the record. But I have actually thought about whether or not this is a good idea, specifically because of Who records. I’ve heard of the contentious atmosphere in the studio, replete with shouting matches and physical altercations, and I wonder if records like Who’s Next and Quadrophenia would have been the great pieces of art that they were without that level of personal discord and acrimony. Looking back on it, do you feel that was necessary? Or was that necessary to make a record with the aggressive emotions and sounds that are intrinsic to a Who record?
PT: Weird. There was very rarely a contentious atmosphere in The Who studio. When it happened it became news quickly, partly because I didn’t use diplomacy in my interviews. I told the truth. That meant that other band members told the truth by return. So the few incidents that occurred have been well documented and moved into legend. The real struggles have been between Roger and me. This has not been driven by animosity or differing agenda, more by different needs as artists and performers. There have been Who live shows where real anger and aggression have been present, but in the studio, we did what you would most have liked. We tried to have fun. We were always under terrible pressure in the studio, so it wasn’t always possible to have fun, but we tried.
I think the producer who tries to generate acrimony in a session is probably sick. I think every one of The Who would put moments of temper tantrum down to moments of mental frustration we would have preferred never happened, rather than a constructive way to record. We were a band. We wanted to like each other as well as love each other and be dependent on each other. It was a struggle sometimes. In the end we often settled for making each other laugh. Quite a few Who sessions were quite boozy affairs, a fair bit of Remy Martin went down my neck while we recorded. But I rarely got drunk, and it helped for a while. I haven’t drank in a recording session since 1981, except once or twice in 1993. I am happiest working sober.
I avoided any possible studio altercations with Roger on Endless Wire by staying out of the studio when he was recording his vocals. My advice, when given always felt clumsy to me, he knows what he best needs. Give Roger a good song, and leave him to work, he does the job. Whatever happened, whatever we might have disagreed on, today neither of us would have actually allowed acrimony to set it.
- EQ: You’ve worked with some of the great producers of all time, like Shel Talmy and Glyn Johns. What did you learn from any of these people, and do you have a preference between working with a producer and producing yourself?
PT: I learned most from Glyn (who engineered our records with Shel). He has a strong personality that allowed him to dominate his own process very precisely. The way he sat, dead-center between the speakers — believe it or not he was the first to do this so accurately and it was considered unusual — the equipment he used, the mics he used and where he put them, the reverb he used (always recorded on tape with the source), were all part of a process that he worked with almost intuitively. Many engineers tried to copy him and failed. They simply couldn’t hear what he could hear. He built up a sound “picture” I think. When you went in for a playback you would always be surprised at how solid an image he had created around your playing. Almost like posing for a photo, then seeing yourself in an image that had been Photoshopped. I knew I was gorgeous, but not that gorgeous [laughs].
- EQ: Even though I have never gotten to work with Glyn, he is hugely influential on me. I still insist on using his isosceles triangle mic technique on drums, which always really seems to confuse people who’ve never seen it. “Why is one of your overheads next to the floor tom?”
PT: When he uses those three mics, Glyn is probably working with opposing phase shifts. He probably doesn’t know that, or care. But the fastidiousness with which he will slightly move that tom-tom mic, which is — let’s face it — looking partly into the other microphones, at least sideways, suggests that he actually uses whatever phase cancellation is created, and does so as part of his building of an accurate stereo image. It’s very hard to reproduce. I’ve watched other people try it with great amusement. In the end they haul out two extra mics for the snare and the hi-hat and the whole stereo picture falls apart.
- EQ: Lastly, I know you have some feelings on hearing, as hearing damage became a major concern for you. Since we record, our ears are our greatest assets. Do you have any advice from your own personal trial and terror that you’d like to share?
PT: Any damage I have relates either to an unfortunate series of events on stage (sustained howl-round of a mic for example or exploding drum kits on the Smothers Brothers TV Show), or getting drunk while using earphones. Earphones in themselves are not a problem, though a sudden shriek or sound can be hard to escape, of course. It is lowering one’s normal pain threshold by drinking, and getting excited and generating adrenaline that causes damage. I would also say the brain is smarter than we think when it comes to sound. I know when something needs 10kHz, and yet I can hardly hear 10kHz except at very high volume or speaker proximity. How can that be? Well it just is.
In fact I now have to work at very close speaker proximity to hear a truly flat sound, I use the small 10″ Tannoy enclosures made by Manley that were designed for mastering by Doug Sachs, and drive them with two Manley 400 watt monoblocks. An expensive rig, but it is musical sounding, and gives me about four straight hours of stress-free listening. Strangely enough, being on stage with The Who doesn’t affect my tinnitus levels as much as an airplane trip with my MP3 player [laughs]!