Before his nineteenth birthday, Andy Johns was working as Eddie Kramer's second engineer on classic recordings for Jimi Hendrix and many others. In a career spanning more than 30 years, he's engineered or produced records for artists ranging from Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones to Van Halen and Rod Stewart, whose sales total in excess of 160 millions copies.
In this unearthed interview from 2002, Universal Audio's Matt Ward caught up with Andy in Cherokee Studios' beautiful 5.1 mixing room, Studio Two, where he was putting the finishing touches on a new L.A. Guns record. Read on for Andy’s recollections of his history and tips on how he used Universal Audio’s 1176LN Limiting Amplifier on some of the most iconic rock hits, including Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.”
How did you get started with producing? You were a musician first, right?
Well, yes. I was going to be the next greatest bass player of all time! No, I got started because my brother [producer Glynn Johns] does the same thing. He would take me to the studio and it looked a lot better than working.
So he was your older brother?
Yes, he was older and of course he was a musician. He gave me my first guitar. Like most children, I loved music. When you’re subjected to musicians playing instead of just listening to the radio, there is even more magic.
When did you start?
When I started, it was so much easier to become an engineer. Not like now, whey have to train for bloody six years. My brother started Olympic Studios and I hung out for two days, and on the third day they put me on a session — which in those days really just meant running the tape machine, plugging a few things into the mics, and punches. So, within three days there I was working on sessions. I was a big Jimi Hendrix fan at that time, before he was the huge icon that he is now. He came in and was working on what was going to turn out to be “Axis Bold as Love.” Eddie Kramer was the engineer and I was the assistant. It was a serious learning experience; the man was a genius. He was exceptional. Beyond exceptional.
In those days you could go into one studio and Joe Cocker was working, and then you’re working with Jimi Hendrix in Studio One, or down the corridor Eric Clapton is doing something. It was a serious center. A lot of talent was there. Plus, you got to do orchestras and jingles. You had to record many, many different kinds of instruments —cymbals, harpsichords, sleigh bells — about anything you could hit or blow through to make a noise. You don’t get so much of that anymore.
How has your job, or what you do, changed in the last thirty years?
It hasn’t changed a bit; it is the same exact thing. Just try and get it right, it is your duty. It is almost a semi-religious duty. You are working with talented people and it is your job to make them become what they hear in their heads. Also it’s your job to make certain suggestions to make their music a little better than perhaps it would have been. If you don’t do that, you let them down; it’s their careers, their lives. They have a picture in their heads of what they want to be and you had better get it, because if you don’t, you’re an asshole.
So all the technological changes in the last 30 years are kind of not relevant?
It doesn’t make any difference at all. It is just more stuff to play with. It’s psychosomatic in a way. Say you listen to an AC/DC record from 1976, and it sounds fabulous. Then you listen to something from this year or last year, and there is more bottom end and more top. It just depends on the moment you are in. Listen to “Gimme Shelter” from Let it Bleed by the Rolling Stones; it was one the most perfect mixes of all time. The groove is outstanding. Wonderful. You could listen to that forever.
“My idea is to make it sound as if you are at the best rehearsal that the band ever did, and you are about twelve feet back from the stage, in a nice rehearsal place.”
We are using the same gear. The music is coming out of speakers, you know, JBL’s. I am using the microphones that I grew up with: Shures, Neumanns, and AKG’s. Usually people love older mixers, give me a Neve or an API, or something. You look around and nothing has changed. The only thing that has really changed is that you don’t get to work on two-inch [tape machines] as much anymore.
When they first came out with digital machines, the 3M 32-tracks, everyone was saying, “Andy you can’t use that, you’ll lose ambiance!” It sounded fine to me! In fact, the record came out and people were calling me up and saying, “Hey would you work with us, we love that sound!” I never worked with an analog tape machine that was flat, I have hassled with them all my life. Although when you get it right — you got the right kind of tape, you got the right machine, you tweak it properly — it is a lovely sound.
What about the difference in the amount of tracks?
Well, that is the luxury that one can tend to abuse. I know I have. The way that I make records today would be quite different than the way I did ten years ago. I try not to use as many tracks. I don’t do everything in stereo. Oh, [becomes animated] he is going to play keyboard, it is a little flotsam. I need two tracks for that. No, who cares. It is how you mix it, you know. That is psychosomatic, too.
Is there a characteristic “Andy Johns” sound?
I am told that there is. I would like to think that there is. I would be an egotist if I told you what I really thought it was. Fidelity is obviously of primary importance. My idea is to make it sound as if you are at the best rehearsal that the band ever did, and you are about twelve feet back from the stage, in a nice rehearsal place. It might mean that six tracks for the rhythm guitars sound like two guys playing. I might use four different sounds for the melodies of the guitars. I might need a different sound on the chorus or the bridge, or the solo or the counterpoint. But hopefully, when it is mixed, it sounds like the band is playing. You’re supposed to be there and feel them playing.
Do you do most of your own engineering?
Do you find it difficult to keep up with all the technological changes?
Trying to keep up with all the new gear, that’s a little difficult. I have assistant engineers for that. I haven’t got time to sit down and study a new piece of gear for two hours. But, it is not that difficult to turn it on, plug it in, see what it does and sort of ditz with it yourself.
What experience in the studio really stands out?
That would be Exile on Main Street. As a child, at school, I thought that the Rolling Stones were the shit. You’d be on the bus, and the people who liked the Beatles would be on one side of the bus, and the people who liked the Stones would be other side of the bus. I loved the Beatles, but the Rolling Stones were a little dirtier, a little more serious about the blues.
Luckily enough I worked with them because I knew Jimmy Miller, who was their producer. He was a really great producer. I worked on Sticky Fingers. I went through the test thing with Jagger, the steamroller, and managed to pass the test. Then I became their guy. For Exile On Main Street, we went to the south of France for six months. We went to Keith’s house and they just built this truck, the Rolling Stones mobile. It was the first proper mobile in Europe. Being with those guys was like being in center of the universe at that point. Watching their process and their courage in rearranging things fascinated me.
“I couldn’t have done “Black Dog” without the 1176s. There is not another compressor that will do that.”
After six months there, we came here to do overdubs and mixes. I was twenty-one. That was a big learning experience. I ended up mixing the thing after they got rid of me for a couple of months. I got this phone call from Jagger saying, “Hello, well it’s five mixes you did, we have been working with [another engineer]. It didn’t really work out, you want to mix the rest of the record?” I went, “Pssssssssh.” There it went. I ended up mixing ten or twelve songs, in a big 36-hour mad session. Just on my own. When the record came out, most of it was pretty damn fine. Yeah, that was a pretty big learning experience. But, I have never been as quick since. I tend to ponder a bit more.
How about an experience that stands out in a negative way? There is no reason to name names. You can name names if you like.
Well, negative, I don’t know. Even if it becomes tiresome, and you don’t understand what is going on, later you can look back at it. It is like Napoleon, he used to on campaigns set aside one hour to see what went wrong, and try and take advantage of it. You ponder on that and try not to make the same mistakes, again. Of course, they are unavoidable. Because you don’t control fuckin’ everything, and if you did, you would be sitting in a room on your own. So, who needs that?
Negative I don’t know. There are people that I have worked with to where after you do three or four records you kind of lose creative touch with each other because you start doing the same things. Which isn’t negative, it just the way it is. I always hope at the end of any project, doesn’t matter what it is, that you have learned something. Even if it was how to shut-up, sit down, and be quiet or something, you learn how to do that.
Do you have a particular approach to getting an electric guitar sound?
Well, yes, and it is very simple. When I was a kid it was the hippie thing. Someone would bring their amplifier and their guitar and you’d think, “That’s what he means to sound like? I’d better make it sound okay.” Well the drum kit would be struggling to get a sound and it wouldn’t be there, and you would think that it was your fault. It took me years to realize, “Wait a minute, the gear they got is just not fuckin’ right.”
For electric guitar sounds I quite often use 2 [Shure] SM57’s — one straight on and one at a 45-degree angle. So you don’t have to find a sweet spot for the EQ. Or, I might use a Neumann U47 and a Sennheiser MD 421-- whatever is good that day. It’s what’s coming out of the amplifier, pal. If you have the world’s greatest stereo system on the planet and you put a shitty program through it, it sounds like shit. If it is horrible, you can EQ it and compress it and do anything you want, but you’re just fuckin’ a turd, you know.
What are you working on now?
Well, I just finished a record with L.A. Guns and I am about to start with this band called Asthma in New York. They are very cool. I just did a 5.1 with The Cult, a live record. They just split up, so I am probably going to be doing a record with Ian, the singer. They are casting around for musicians right now. Ian Ashbury from The Cult is a really good poet and a really good lad, too. I like him, and he’s English. I don’t get to work with English people very much. Yeah, always fuckin’ Americans. Which is why I came here. The home of rock ’n roll, man.
It is unusual to hear an Englishman admit that.
Oh, good Lord. Do you remember when Eric [Clapton] was playing with Delaney and Bonnie? I was working with all these English bands, Free and Traffic and Blind Faith, Ten Years After. There was some serious blues going on, but it would seem to take a long time to get to the growth. Delaney and Bonnie, who were playing with Jimmy Gordon, Carl Rydel, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Price and Bobby Keys playing horns, would walk in the room and it was like turning a fucking light switch. Instant groove. I thought, “Jesus Christ, these guys are professionals!” It doesn’t take them an hour to get into it or two hash joints to get there. They’d just — bing — and there it was. They’d say, “Hey did you get that?” And I thought, “Fuckin’ hell! It’s true. It’s the real thing.”
You have to record from the first take, huh?
Well, yes. You have to be quick. I always used to like lazy rock ’n roll. The Stones they don’t show up till midnight, you have been sitting there since two in the afternoon. Nothing gets done for days at a time. Then Delaney and Bonnie came on they changed the whole scene. Those people from that rhythm section played on a lot of records in two years —All Things Must Pass, George’s [Harrison] big quadruple record, and Gary Wright, with millions of things, and the horn section in London, which impressed Bobby Keys. I learned from them, and I thought, “Hell, why are they coming here? I wanna go there.”
I came over here in 1970, because I was working with Jimmy Miller and he was an American who had a production company out here. The studios were a little behind the times, though. When I was mixing “Stairway to Heaven” over at Sunset Sound and I wanted to pan something, I said, “You don’t have pan pots on the channels.” They responded, “We have a pan pot. Bring on the pan pot!” They bring out this guy on a gurney, you know? A big box with a huge knob, a pan pot man. Christ, the Americans sent someone to the moon, but they only had one pan pot. It was like having one meatball. You can have all the bread you want, but only with one meatball.
Is it true that you have used Universal Audio’s 1176 on most, if not all, of the records you have done in the last thirty years?
Since you guys came out with the device, I have used them on every record since.
If I am shown a new room, and of course the studio owner is always very proud of his gear, you have to go through this:
“We have this and we have that.”
Then I say, “These monitors are all right, the mixer I can work with. But how many 1176s do you have? There are two? Do you have more?”
They say, “Well, we can get more.”
“Well two is not enough. I am going to need six, because they are workhorse compressors.”
When I run out of 1176s, I go to the LA-2A’s, LA-3A’s, or LA-4A’s. After that, it doesn’t matter so much because it is like, “Compress? Okay, fine.”
Not to betray any state secrets, but are there any particular settings you use for certain program material you’d be willing to share?
For vocals there really isn’t a better compressor. Sometimes an LA-2A is good because it grabs on a little bit more. Plus, on the LA-2A, you have the limiter position. That’s a trick that I use, which I don’t think anybody has really caught on to. I got awards and all that rubbish for drum sounds; it is insane but true. I concentrate on the drum kit because it is the only instrument in a rock ’n roll band that is actually acoustic. You know getting the proper “trenches?” Everything is bloody — the bass is electric, the Hammond is electric. The acoustic guitar and the vocals are the only other acoustic things.
When I am mixing, I melt the bass drum and I melt the snare. The bass drum will not be even. The first bass drum track doesn’t have an 1176 on, and it gets to breathe. Then, I put another bass drum next to it with an 1176 at 4:1 [ratio setting]. It evens it out a bit. I sneak that in and the bass drum is more constant.
Of course, you have to change your EQs appropriately. You might want to use the 1176 before or after the EQ. For the snare, I use one normal track that I EQ to death. Then I will use another one that has gone through a gate, hopefully a Keypex II. I put an 1176 on it to make it pop. I sneak that in. Not only to get rid of some of the dross because of the gate, the high hat, all the rubbish and symbols and shit. The 1176 will make it pop a little, and you sneak that in and all of a sudden the snare just comes up.
“You are working with talented people and it is your job to make them become what they hear in their heads…You had better get it, because if you don’t, you’re an asshole.”
For Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy,” which we did in this very building, [Drummer] Carmine [Appice] had a bunch of kits. This was disco so he needed to be in mono. We used two or three mics and a small kit, and I compressed it so it could breathe. The bass drum pushed the cymbals away so of course I used an 1176. What else are you going to use? I used an 1176 and then I put an extra bass drum on another track so that I could control the volume of it-- but that was an 1176 thing. Now I know that a lot of people hate, loathe that song, but what did that record do? We did 12 million. That was the single that was an 1176.
Would you like the “Black Dog” guitar tone story?
Absolutely! Which Led Zeppelin album was that?
That is the fourth one, the really, really big one. “Stairway To Heaven,” “When The Levee Breaks,” and “Black Dog.” It sold about 18 million — something bloody ridiculous. Who would have known, you know? I had been trying to get this sound from Buffalo Springfield for a long time and I met Bill House. He said, “I just put two of them in series.” He didn’t really want to let me know what “they” were.
It was a direct sound and I thought that I knew what to do. There were three guitars on “Black Dog” so I triple tracked it. When I mixed it, these three guitars were down here and the rest of the tracks were up here. Since the sound was so loud, it gave me much more room for the other stuff. Anyways, he meant two 1176s in series, one of which has the compression buttons punched out, so it is like an amp. You hit the front of the next compressor really hard and make the mic amp distort a bit with the EQ —a bit of bottom to make it sing. So “Black Dog” has a direct Gibson Les Paul Sunburst 52 or something, going right into the mic amps on the mixer, which is going through two 1176s, and it sounds like some guy in the Albert Hall with a bunch of Marshalls. I couldn’t have done it without the 1176s. There is not another compressor that will do that, because you can take out the compression stuff.
In England, before we had 1176s, Audio Design and EMT made one or two different versions, and they were cool. They were very good but they didn’t do what this thing does. It is almost — how can I put it — Universal Audio springs to mind. If you're doing gardening, you'll need a spade. If you're going to drive your car, you might want to put petrol in the tank, and if you're making a record, you need some 1176s. It is paradoxically a universal thing. You have to have them, and if you don’t, it’s just sort of sad. You can get around the situation, but they always make life easier.
Andy, Thanks so much for talking with us! It has been a pleasure!
I am very proud to be involved!