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RE/P Files: Interview With Grammy Award Winning Engineer/Producer Bones Howe
Recording techniques, approaches and philosophies from the man behind the "sunshine sound" of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including most of the hits of The 5th Dimension and The Association. The interview originally appeared in the June/July 1970 issue of RE/P.
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Do you do a lot of splicing on 16 track?

I do very little splicing on 16 because the tape is very unwieldy. It’s tough to handle, and also the track distance from track 1 to track 16 is so far apart that if you make an angular cut, you’re cutting the space of an inch down the diagonal cut across the tape. Working with two-inch tape is uncomfortable anyway, it’s difficult to handle physically. The new 207 tape may be all right for that, I haven’t tried too much of that, but the thin tape, the 203, was just impossible to work with 16. It’s so thin that at that width, it has a tendency to pull and stretch, and then when the machine hits a splice, the splice makes the tape so much thicker compared to the original thickness of the tape, and it pulls the tape down and messes up the alignment.

So it seemed to me that the optimum medium for the tape editor, with a maximum facility—in other words having the most tracks—is to work with 8 track tape. It’s better than 4, because ‘4 doesn’t give you enough to mess around with, and 8 track is enough for anybody anyway. If you had to be washed up on a desert island with a machine, it would be an 8 track.

Do you differ on your mixing ideas from record to record?

Oh yes. There’s a whole philosophy in that, too. We were thrown into an engineering dilemma because the recording industry manufacturers went completely to stereo product, but there were no stereo AM radio stations, and the AM stations are responsible for the majority of record sales. So it boiled down to making a stereo record that would sound good on AM radio. The CSG unit is very good, but it has its own limitations. I used it on Jeffrey Comanor ‘s album and I liked it all right. A&M (Records) uses it on all their product. I’ve never used it on any of the 5th Dimension records, and I think we get good sounding monos from our stereos. You just have to know that whatever is in the center is going to be three times as loud as what’s on the sides, and you just have to put things, place things, on the tape in such a way that the most important things are closer to the center.

You seem to prefer smaller, compactly arranged consoles, instead of larger, more complicated ones.

Oh yeah, I hate those consoles. First of all, it’s like driving a car—you don’t want the gearshift in the back seat. When they put controls in the Apollo capsule, they put them where they can reach them. And the control console is just that: it’s there for the purpose of controlling the sound. I use everything that’s there, if it needs to be used, and I like to have those things close by. I used to work at Western all the time, and I hate that console that they put in over there. That Studio 3 system is a totally illogical system. It’s there to dazzle. The patch bay is like a cribbage board. The old Western Electric jack system is great, it’s fine, it’s positive. If it makes a bad contact you jiggle it in and out three or four times and it works.

Now that may sound old fashioned, but those little bitty things that they have at Western, if something goes wrong with them, you have to get somebody to come and fix it. There are advantages to not miniaturizing certain functions. Our hands are still the same size, I’ll put it that way, and if it’s something that you’re gonna do with your hands, it should be big enough that you can control it with your hands and yet not so big that it’s unwieldy. To make a little jack that you hold between your thumb and forefinger is unreasonable. Besides, you have to see it with your eye and you have to count little bitty holes, twelve over and three down. It’s incredible, it’s insane. What does it mean when somebody says, “Well, we’ve got the same kind of patches that they have on the Apollo capsule.” OK, great, but this is a recording studio, and you don’t need that kind of sub-miniaturization.

The straight line design of consoles is still best. When you start getting into concentric things you’re in trouble, because if you have to make a change, and I make a lot of changes, it is most often in the space of an 8th note, or going on a beat, and if you’ve got two knobs one on top of the other and you have to turn one going into a beat, chances are you’re gonna turn the other one too. And chances are you don’t want to turn the other one.

So what happens is you end up using two hands where you’d only have to use one. And the purpose of all that is that it looks great, it saves space, but the straight line design, where you have all the controls in line with each position on the console, is the most foolproof way and still best. I find I can do all sorts of incredible things with those push buttons now. You can change channels, you can shut things on and off, you can do all of that with one hand. You can get four or maybe five if your hand is big enough, five changes all at the same time. Set them up just like an organ console with preset stops.

How do Lou Adler and Phil Spector differ?

Well, Lou went for a very tight rhythm sound and always worked with a very small rhythm section. Phil worked with giant rhythm sections and huge orchestras and everything swam around the studio and had a lot of tape reverb and echo on it. He had a sound that he went for and it was a combination of echo and tape reverb, and when he got those two things in the right combination, he was satisfied. He wouldn’t let anybody move, he wouldn’t give a five until he had his basic track.

Anything else?

I think one thing that ought to be mentioned, and it’s a basic thing, is that engineers and producers should train their ears to recognize sound perspectives. So many guys fool themselves by having the monitor up loud, and think that everything has a lot of presence, and then they hear it down on a car radio and find that everything has disappeared on them that they didn’t want to disappear. Or they find that the tambourine is the loudest thing on the record. I can work with the monitor low enough for someone to talk on the phone, and I often do, because it’s just a matter of accustoming your ear to
listen to perspectives. How close things actually are.

There are really great advantages to using sound perspectives. If you’re doing a record like “Aquarius,” then it’s definitely an advantage to having those flutes and triangle at the beginning of the record in kind of a round, far away sound, and having the rhythm section come through that right at you. They may be things people wouldn’t notice if they weren’t there. Who knows if the consumer hears those or not? I’m constantly amazed at people who pick out things in records that I didn’t think anyone would ever notice. But people notice those things. They notice the frosting or the frills or whatever you want to call them, but I think it’s the cake that makes them buy the record.

Go here for more about the life and career of Bones Howe.

Take the PSW Photo Gallery Tour of audio equipment ads appearing in RE/P magazine, circa 1970

Our sincere thanks to Mark Gander of JBL Professional for his considerable support on the RE/P archive project.

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