I think we all have a certain idea of what a bigtime producer is like- Dan Sachoff's portrayal of archvillain Gene Balboa on "Yacht Rock" encapsulates the archetype quite nicely. For the average person, the producer or engineer is not what you think of when you think of rock royalty. We chase the singers and guitarists- and these days the beatmakers. But who do they chase? Well, people like Ron Nevison, who I had the good fortune to interview the other day. It was a great experience- and Ron had a friendly, wise demeanor that made it seem like I was consulting an urbane wizard instead of the stereotypical producer. It was also a very long interview, so I'll be serializing it for a week or so.
But wait, you say- you've never heard of Ron Nevison? Have you ever heard of "Physical Graffiti," "Quadrophenia", or "Bad Co."? Then you've heard of Ron Nevison, whose work producing Zeppelin, The Who, Bad Company, KISS, Ozzy Osbourne, Heart, Jefferson Starship, Chicago, and more, have cemented him not only as a recording engineer responsible for some of the great great albums, but also a producer to be reckoned with.
I did feel some trepidation speaking with someone who in all likelihood has told Pete Townshend to "Turn it down!" Fellow blogger Eriq Nelson's response was to inquire whether Mr. Nevison required a wheelbarrow to cart around his gigantic balls. So, for now enjoy part 1 of the interview, where we discuss the making of a classic Who album, the work schedules of metal divas, and some advice for modern DAW users.
Well, first off I wanted to ask you what's happening on March 12th?
You know, a friend of mine, his name is Dan Caruthers, a local singer, a wonderful guy, wonderful performer and arranger, teaches music... he's got this idea to get local talent together take them up like one step from karaoke. You said it very well, actually, you saw the craigslist post that wasn't very clear. I called him and said “What exactly are you trying to do with this? You're using my name...” So I helped him out with it. Anyway, there's a Chinese restaurant...
That's right. He's gonna do somehting there where he's going to get a lot of local talent to play with his house band, I told him I'm going to help evaluate the talent. It's not a big deal, I'm trying to help him out.
I hope he can get something together, as far as giving people some lessons... I think a lot of his students will be coming. I told him I'd be there as long as I wasn't somewhere else. Anything I could do to help him out. He'd do anything for me.
I was trying to figure it out, whether a new series was starting, or a meet-and-greet...
It might be a little concert, the local talent, but who knows exactly!
I've left most of your pedigree for the intro to the interview...
Well, you contacted me so you saw the bio and discography, but there's actually a video I did for the Hollywood Walk of Fame Awards, so you can refer to that too.
I didn't want to go too far into sampling who you were before the interview beyond what I'd already read about you... I did end up reading an interview with Jake E. Lee and it was... hm, interesting. I thought I'd see what the deal was from the man himself.
What did he say?
He said that you guys butted heads on “The Ultimate Sin.” and that you had a very strong production style as far as wanting to do things a certain way, and get it done, and he didn't want to do it that way.
(laughs) Well, he would like to be his own producer. But what you don't know is that he wanted to come in at midnight.
He wanted to work midnight to 8am. There's more than one person in a band, though. What about all the people at the front desk... and the second engineers, and maintenance people. So I said no. I'm all for working with people when the want to work, so we compromised and started at like 6 at night. I said that I can't do it... not even speaking for the rest of the band, but if I work for you at midnight to 8am, I have to take a couple of days off to turn my life around be able to work with someone else again. But he was a strange guy. He was... no drugs, he was into Zen stuff, martial arts...
I don't know what he was into. But he was a fantastic guitar player, I never had a problem with him. If he had a problem with me he never told me. Doesn't surprise me.
Well, it wasn't uncomplimentary by any means, but he obviously felt there was a conflict.
The only thing we really butted heads over was when to work. But it was 1985. You probably weren't even born yet.
Oh, Jake E. Lee... you're not Keith Richards. You can't change all world clocks!
When were you born?
Oh, so you were a good 7 or 8 years old. [Editorial note: While I was an avid music listener at this point in history, I was about a year away from hearing Metallica's “Kill 'Em All” and Iron Maiden's “The Trooper”, so my exposure to Ozzy albums was minimal.]
Well, I want to dip back into the past even further so I can orient myself with you a bit. Quadrophenia...
I read somewhere that a significant portion of that was a 'cut-up' job, that Pete Townshend and John Entwhistle recorded their parts in their home studios and brought it to you to be aligned, and cut up and placed in there. What was that like?
That actually isn't true.
Pete was on the cutting edge of technology in 1973 when we did that album. He was composing on the ARP 2500. The ARP was a modular- you're a musician, so... those modular synths had these big gigantic sections, connected with these mini cords and you had to tune up all the oscillators. It wasn't like there was a 'Tune' button. Then when you were done with a sound you had to tear it all down and start another sound. You'd never get it exactly the same. There were no presets for horns or strings... there were guidelines, but you had to manually set them all up yourself.
Or bring someone in to do it for you like the Doors did on “Strange Days.”
...or a programmer, but Pete was his own programmer. But it didn't travel well. What Pete did was, he laid down his own demo track with his synthesizer, then the scratch tracks, then on the 16 tracks, overdub the band on it. In other words, would have Keith and John play to that. We wouldn't have to cut anything up. We only had to do that on certain tracks where Keith had a program... Sometimes Entwhistle would record some horns in his own studio, but very few inside the song.
A lot of the songs we cut them just like a normal band would cut them. Some of the songs that had a significant amount of synthesizer on them, we'd use Pete's 16 tracks then cut the band on top of them. You know, he spent a lot of time on them. And there wasn't a lot of programming, it was real time playing. With some simple parts- he was real careful not to give anything to Keith or John- not to tell them what to play, just block it out and let them do their thing. Just have the scratch parts- I don't remember if there was a scratch vocal...
Seems like there probably would have been.
There were tracks like “The Rock” which was all synthesizer- it was called “Overture” originally, but it's called “The Rock”- it is an overture. Pete designed these motifs...
For each band member...
Right, Jimmy, wasn't schizophrenic, he was 'quadrophrenic,' in other words he had these four different personalities. Roger was the romantic guys, Keith was the crazy one, John the stoic one... I don't remember what Pete saved for himself. That was the big theme. The record company at the time, MCA Universal, wanted us to do it in quad... there was a big quadrophonic push in the '70s. It took your vinyl, and it took your vinyl and put your front channels out of phase with your real channels, made this mishmash. You couldn't really call it quality. But MCA thought Quadrophenia, Quadrophonic, oh wow.
Just because they had 'Quad' in the title.
So they sent us out this 'encoder,' to try to mix the mix, way way before digital, and we tried it and the front and back separation was like 5db. Not discrete quadrophonic. It was AWFUL. So Pete said I'm not doing a quad recording that's worse than the stereo. So he said forget it and they went nuts. Now, I was not party to that, I was just an engineer, and management was dealing with MCA after the fact. At the point The Who had their own label from MCA, so he could pretty much what he wanted.
He could afford to throw a fit.
Yeah, they couldn't really do much, even though they weren't happy about it. And he was right! There was no point in doing something on that scale that was worse than the original just to be on the cutting edge. Hey, I'd love to have done it in 5.1... but it wasn't invented yet!
It seems like hardly anyone was doing anything serious with quad. Pink Floyd was messing around with it, but...
Well, which quad? The Quad SQ from the mid '70s... or discrete quad... well, 5.1 is quad with the vocal channel in the center and then the sub. I don't see that as being really that popular.
Not as far as music.
Well, yeah, with videos and movies. I don't know that people want to be surrounded by music.
Anyway. I think we've, ha... any more questions on Quadrophenia?
Not that I want to... want to keep us here all afternoon with. Well, you did mention something with the ARP that I was going to ask about anyway. We're kind of an impatient society these days. You know we always figure that things are going to be fixed by a preset, the next plugin, the next piece of vintage gear. Are there any 'go-to' methods you have, gear or techniques that as a producer or engineer that you live by?
Well, there are things that have come along, like Autotune, that are fantastic. But the more technology gets advanced, the more people abuse it. You know, CDs came along in, I don't know, '83, and we went from 40 minute of vinyl rock and roll, 20 minutes a side- we had sides in those days- to 76 or 80 minute albums, then to nanoseconds- bang! Bang! People started doing these ridiculously long albums, just because some guy in the band wanted to get his crappy song on there. And there's no pun intended on 'Crappy Indie Music'.
So... that was a drag. Not only does it drain resources, because you have a producer there, and it's another weeks recording. Maybe another month. What I'm getting to is, now we have virtual recording where we have as many tracks as we need, which is a real detriment. People have stopped making choices. People don't sit there and get rid of things, they don't have to. So at the end when you go to mix it's unbelievable, there's no end. When I started out with 8 tracks, I was mixing drums in stereo, and I had to print to reverb if I wanted it on the snare. Then it was done, it was finished. Now I have 10 or 12 tracks for drums. When I go through the recording process, every day every moment I make the decision: am I going to keep this. That's the biggest problem people recording these days have. They leave everything. If you work for 2 hours on a guitar part, the sound and everything else, you're finished with it, you're right there, with probably the best knowledge of it sonically of it, the timing and everything... now, whatever you're looking for in that part, you make that judgement right then. Now you might want to leave some in case you're wrong, and come back when you're mixing to say this part is the best one or that.
So I guess to sum up, the advice I'd give is to make choices as you go along and not wait til the end.
To treat the process as more important.
Make your decisions every day, not just at the end.
So you've been a producer and an engineer, I won't get too much into what a producer is, but what do you think the difference is...
You get paid more!
(laughs) There's a promotion for you. Well, since you've been both, how much of a difference for you is there. Do you think there's a big separation in the roles, as far as yourself?
Well, I'm a “producer/engineer.” When I started, I was just an engineer, with Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Bad Company. There was six albums right there. There was no producer- well, Pete was producer, and Jimmy Page in the case of Zeppelin, and the band produced Bad Company. But I wasn't dealing with a separate producer. A guy coming in from outside, I was working with the band members. So I gave my opinion when they asked me, and sometimes when they didn't ask me. When it felt appropriate, to remind them what they were doing, whenever I felt it added something to the session. Really I haven't changed much, except as far as getting credit. Once I got past doing those albums, I learned I had to demand production credit from the start. It didn't change anything except I became a royalty artist where I wasn't before. People say, “Ohh, you don't make any royalties from Led Zeppelin?” No, but I made a career off them.