For more than four decades, Pete Townshend has stood at the epicenter of one of the most influential rock acts of all time—The Who. Here, EQ looks back on our August 2007 interview, in which Townshend shares insights on the role of artist as producer.
EQ: You were one of the first recording artists to have a home studio. How difficult was that to achieve back then?
Townshend: It wasn’t until I got to my apartment on Wardour Street in early 1967 that I found a place where I could make as much noise as I liked. It was a commercial room, so the buildings around it were empty at night, when I did most of my work. It was here I got my first mixer—a little filmmaker’s Uher—and a Grampian spring reverb. A little later in this same room, I supplemented my Vortexion machines [that ran at 7.5 ips] with two Revox G37s. These ran at 15 ips, and they sounded superb. I had no idea at the time about aligning them, and just experimented with different types of tape to get the best sound.
Do you have any advice for the people who have decided to forego the use of professional studios and make their records at home?
Tricky question. It would be wrong to generalize; everyone works in his or her own way. I would say try to keep your recording system as simple as you can. Don’t be tempted by software upgrades if you are in the middle of a project that is going well. Wait for the break. If you can, start with something—whether acoustic or sampled or synthetic—that inspires you, and stay close to that first inspiration and make the process about honoring it. Something happens at point zero in the creative process that is special, and is easily muddied by process or self-indulgence. On the other hand, you have to enjoy the process, so if getting it muddy makes you happy, go for it. We all enjoy our own demos more than anyone else on the planet…because we were there throughout the whole process.
You have made some of the most adventurous production decisions in rock. Do you feel that putting off decisions and throwing the kitchen sink at a song’s production can be beneficial or detrimental?
The dual role of artist and producer could be a tricky one. If you’ve recorded at home, maybe it demonstrates humility to allow dramatic adjustments to be made later on. On the other hand, if you are a hot-shot, big-name producer, it might be that you know the record company is going to want some other hot shot to remix your mixes. Pro Tools makes all of this possible, and natural. However, I think better music is made in layers, when musical decisions are made as you go along. How can you, for example, add a cello part to a song that really blends when you know that someone further down the line could completely change the backing track underneath it and put it out as a solo cello record? That’s an extreme example, but musicians like to listen to what is there and work with it or against it. They work with what they have. Even so, great records have been made in so many different ways; it’s tempting to preach one method, but that would be Luddism.