In honor of his life, here's an interview I did with Andy for The Mixing Engineer's Handbook that contains so much of his wisdom.
Does the fact that you started on 4 track affect the way you work now?
Andy Johns: Yes, because I learned how to balance things properly to begin with. Nowadays, because you have this luxury of the computer and virtually as many tracks as you want, you don’t think that way any more, but it was a great learning experience having to do it that way.
You know why Sgt. Pepper sounds so good? You know why Are You Experienced [by The Jimi Hendrix Experience] sounds so good, almost better than what we can do now? Because, when you were doing the 4 to 4 [bouncing down from one four track machine to another], you mixed as you went. There was a mix on 2 tracks of the second 4 track machine and you filled up the open tracks and did the same thing again. Listen to “We Love You” [by The Rolling Stones]. Listen to Sgt. Pepper’s. Listen to “Hole In My Shoe” by Traffic. You mixed as you went along, therefore after you got the sounds that would fit with each other, all you had to do is adjust the melodies.
What’s your approach to using EQ?
Andy Johns: You don’t get your sound out of a console, you get your sound from the room. You choose the right instruments and the right amplifiers for the track. If you have a guitar sound that’s not working with the track properly, you don’t use EQ to make it work, you choose another guitar and/or amplifier so it fits better in the track. It might take a day and it might take four or five different set-ups, but in the end you don’t have to worry about EQ because you made the right acoustic choices while recording.
With drum sounds, even though placing the mics is reasonably important, it’s the way you make the drums sound in the room. The sounds come from the instrument and not from the mixer. On rare occasion, if you run into real trouble, maybe you can get away with using a bunch of EQ, but you can fiddle for days and all you’ll do is make something that was wrong in the first place just sound different.
How about compression?
Andy Johns: I use compression because it’s the only way that you can truly modify a sound. Whatever the most predominate frequency is, the more you compress it the more predominate that frequency will be. Suppose the predominate frequencies are 1k to 3kHz. Put a compressor on it and the bottom end goes away, the top end disappears and you’re left with “Ehhhhh” (makes a nasal sound). So for me, compressors can modify the sound more than anything else. If it’s a bass guitar, you put the compressor before your EQ because if you do it the other way around, you’ll lose the top and mids when the compressor emphasizes the spot that you EQ’ed. If you compress it first, then add bottom, then you’re gonna hear it better.
At what level do you listen at?
Andy Johns: If I’m listening on small speakers, I’ve got to turn them up to where they’re at the threshold of breaking up but without any distortion, or, I listen very quietly. If you turn it way down low, you can hear everything much better. If you turn it as far as it will go before the speakers freak out, then it pumps. In the middle I can’t do it. It’s just not rock n’ roll to me.
Do you have any listening tricks?
Andy Johns: Obviously the idea is to make it work on all systems. You listen on the big speakers, the NS10’s, out in the car, plus your own speakers, then you go home and listen again. This is a lot of work but it’s the only way to go.
The thing is that I don’t care how close you think you’ve got it that night, you take it home and play it back in the morning and every time there are two or three things that you must fix. It’s never happened to me where I’ve come home and said, “That’s it.” You hear it at home and you jump back down to the studio and sure enough, you hear what you hadn’t noticed before on all the systems there. Every system you listen on, the more information you get.
Do you listen in mono much?
Andy Johns: No, but I’ll tell you this, if you’ve got a fantastic stereo mix it will work in mono as well. For example, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” [by The Rolling Stones] is a stereo mix released in mono. People don’t listen in mono any more but that used to be the big test. It was harder to do and you had to be a bloody expert to make it work. In the old days we did mono mixes first then did a quick one for stereo. We’d spend 8 hours on the mono mix and half an hour on the stereo.
When do you add effects in the mix?
Andy Johns: I have some standard things that I do that more or less always work. I always need a great plate like an EMT 140 and a short 25 to 32 ms delay just in back of the vocal. If it’s kind of a mid tempo tune then I’ll use a longer delay which you don’t hear because it’s subliminal. It doesn’t always have to be timed to the track; sometimes it can go in the hole so you can hear it. I’ve been talked out of putting reverb on electric guitars, but Start Me Up has a gorgeous EMT 140 plate on it. Most studios you go into don’t even have one anymore.
Do you predelay the plate?
Andy Johns: Usually but not always. In the old days like on the Zeppelin stuff, you’ll hear very long predelays on vocals. You know what that was? That was a 3M tape machine, which was originally designed to do video so it had about a 9 inch gap between the heads as opposed to the 2 1/4” gap on a Studer or Ampex. Sometimes I’d even put it at 7 1/2 ips. Another thing we used was the old Binson Echorec. Listen to “When the Levee Breaks.” That was me putting two M160’s [Beyer ribbon microphones] on the second floor with no other microphones at all because I wanted to get John Bonham the way he actually sounded. And it worked! Page would say that he made me do it, but he was down at the pub [laughs]. He did bring me his Binson Echorec for the track though.
Do you prefer analog or digital?
Andy Johns: What I like is the sound that’s coming into the mixer. I don’t want it modified by some tape machine. I’ve always fought with analog. I’ve always fought with vinyl. With digital, the sound that’s coming in is what you get it back. It’s much truer than any analog machine ever was. If you’ve got to smooth out your sound with some analog machine then you’re in trouble to start with. With analog, the noise factor is like a security blanket in that the hiss can cover up some weasely things.
But I hate fighting a machine and I still have to have somebody there with me to help. That’s the part of the job that pisses me off. You’ve now got to be a bloody scientist. Sometimes it makes you too clever for your own good. If you just learn the tune then you’re in tune with the tune. You let it flow through you. Now you might listen to it years later and say, “I think I missed that one.” Or, you might go, “Fucking hell, I wish I was that guy again. That could not be any better. Who was that man?”
Thank you, Andy, for your great sounds! Hopefully you're back recording Bonzo again.
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