Andy Johns has the best ears for guitar sound anywhere, and he came by them honestly. At one of his earliest sessions, working as an 18-year-old second engineer to Eddie Kramer on the Jimi Hendrix session that would become Axis: Bold As Love, he was fiddling with a microphone in front of Hendrix’ amp when a chord drilled through him so loud that it wasn’t so much a sound as a pain.
“I didn’t feel anything, just that my feet hurt,” he drawls in his animated English accent. “Jimi played through two 200-watt Marshalls, and he just came down with this enormous chord and I just went, ‘Ouch!’ And he was like, [mimicking Jimi’s soft voice] ‘Oh, man! Sorry, man, oh, wow, no, I didn’t know you were there, man!’”
His laughter echoes around the hillsides where we sit, high up under the oaks in Malibu’s Latigo Canyon. He’s a physical giant of a man who’s made a giant noise, having been behind the boards for 160 million albums’ worth of blues-based rock including the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Led Zeppelin II, III, and IV, Blind Faith, Van Halen’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, and loads of other classics.
“There is a basic sound that I like, which is a nice tube amp miked up,” he says, mentioning a few classic Marshalls and Page’s HiWatts. “But I don’t go, ‘Oh, let’s make it sound like Jimmy Page,’ because you can’t. You have to have Jimmy Page for that. Or I might say we’ll try and get that Hendrix ‘Little Wing’ sound, the bell-like sound, but it’s just a guideline.”
Notably, it’s also not digital. He works in digital often now, when he “doesn’t have the luxury” of having his preferred amp set-ups, and he’s done three or four projects that were digital from end to end, he says, and they sound “pretty good.” But not the best. The digital gear just doesn’t deliver what the ear wants to hear: real moving air. The human ear has no problem hearing the difference. Even when he records in Pro Tools, he likes to run it through an analog mixer, because it just gives it a little plump.
As for getting that huge rock guitar sound, he has fewer secrets or patented innovations. Miking up, he doesn’t waste time looking for the amp’s sweet spot. He puts one mic straight on and runs it bright, then another at 45 degrees so the phase isn’t weird and uses that for the bottom end. The rest of the sound from, say, Clapton or Pete Townsend is loud tube amps, good arrangements, and brilliant musicianship.
Oh yeah, and those ears. There’s no substitute. Johns sits up in his chair when he tells a story about working with Van Halen, with whom he said he got along famously. But at one point, Eddie decided he would mix their live record, Van Halen Live: Right Here Right Now, himself.
“They spent six months. Six months,” he says. “And then, eventually, he broke down. I put it on, and in half an hour it’s starting to sound like something. Now he’s getting pissed off, because it’s not fair. Wow, there it is. And I said, ‘Come on boys, come in and listen.’ So Eddie and Al come in to listen. I go to the kitchen, I come back in, and Eddie’s crying. He’s on the mixer, wah wah wah, and Al’s going, ‘It’s alright, Eddie. He’ll never be able to play guitar like you.’ Ha ha ha! It’s true!”
Excerpted from the July 2005 issue of EQ