If you’ve not heard the news, famed engineer/producer Andy Johns passed away over the weekend. Andy was instrumental in so many hits by rock icons from The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen to newer artists like Cinderella, Joe Satriani and Chicken Foot. He was a guy that definitely liked to have fun, but he was dead serious when it came to recording.
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.