Tony Visconti: Audio Visionary - EMusician

Tony Visconti: Audio Visionary

Tony Visconti talks about his approach with Bolan and Bowie, and the benefits of working at home.
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This article originally appeared in the October 1995 issue of Electronic Musician.

Tony Visconti has worked with just about every legend, singer/songwriter, and scoundrel in rock. Although he is best known for his classic works with David Bowie and T. Rex, his audio productions have made a lasting imprint on every decade since the late 1960s. Visconti's credits, therefore, are almost impossible to list comprehensively in the print medium—we'd need to dedicate an entire issue to his discography alone! An (extremely) short list of luminaries he has directed from behind the control-room glass includes Adam Ant, The Alarm, Badfinger, Boomtown Rats, John Hiatt, Mary Hopkin, Paul McCartney (as orchestrator), Moody Blues, Tom Paxton, Iggy Pop, Thin Lizzy, and U2.

Even more amazing than Visconti's prolific output, however, is the fact that most of his productions are truly pioneering achievements in the use of signal processing and manipulation of the audio soundstage. Not bad for a kid who started out playing the Catskills.

The Brooklyn-bred Visconti actually did begin his career ascent playing double bass in jazz clubs and Catskill resorts when he was only sixteen years old. He soon focused on becoming a songwriter and recording artist, that is, until his music publisher recognized the quality of Visconti's song demos. In 1967, the publisher "loaned" Visconti to legendary British producer Denny Cordell and instructed him to report back on how the English made records. The spy mission was supposed to last six months. It ended tip being a 23year assignment, and during that time, Visconti produced so many classic tracks that the British (like everyone else) were stealing his riffs.

But even though Visconti has produced some of rocks biggest stars and worked in some very heavy studios (including his own Good Earth, a world-class facility in London, from 1972 to 1989), he has also embraced the personal studio. In his current home in New York, he has installed an ADAT and Macbased studio with myriad digital editing tools.

As a consequence. Visconti has developed a production methodology that affords him the luxury of tracking in large studios and doing editing and overdubs in the comforts of home. And Visconti is no less an audio pioneer within the constraints of the "small" studio: he has developed all kinds of tricks for making his homegrown digital tracks sound as sweet and sexy as the analog productions that made him an industry legend. On occasion, he will also share his tips, tricks, and experience with America Online subscribers in the Producer's Forum of Composer's Coffeehouse (keyword: composers). Visconti is definitely a sage for anyone who is considering a career as a producer.

PRODUCER TALK

Originally, this feature was planned as a conventional prose interview. However, Visconti's responses were so packed with information (and some wonderful anecdotes) that I felt it would be criminal to rob EM readers of the complete dialog; hence the question and answer format.

A recent photo of Visconti in his studio.

I tried to organize the interview to run somewhat chronologically through the main aspects of the producer's craft: finding talent, critiquing and arranging material, eliciting passionate performances, optimizing technological tools, and recognizing the value of unexpected "gifts." Visconti's responses to these questions almost form a mini-textbook on the producer's art, offering a blowbyblow account of what happens when an artist and producer are locked into their creative fertility dance.

What elements must an artist possess to seduce you into wanting to produce him or her?
That's like asking, "How do you choose your spouse?" The answer is I fall in love. However, a recurring theme in my work is a quirky, unique voice. When I first heard Mare Bolan [of T. Rex] singing in a small London club, I was bowled over by the quivering, Delta blues-inspired quality of his voice. It was unearthly, and I just had to move closer to find out where that sound was coming from. His delivery was almost feminine, and I couldn't decipher the words or even confirm whether he was singing in English. I was completely enthralled by his voice.

The quality of the artist's material is also very critical. The songs must sound like they could be "classic" works while also offering something that is new and unusual. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the truly successful artists I've produced wrote their own songs. Bolan didn't have instant chart success, but he had a unique songwriting style that I could help develop. When we hit it, we had a continuous run of success for three years and formed a style that is still being copied today.

Finally, I want to be sure an artist has chops. I don't require that they be classically trained or schooled, but they must have talent up the wazoo and a great sense of how to project that talent. Although I can perform all sorts of sonic miracles in the studio, it's more exciting to work with a great musician than to throw a zillion vocal takes into a computer and "fix'' all the out-of-tune notes. A greater form of magic is still the traditional kind: where an artist stands in front of a mic and sings his or her heart out.

Visconti (right, on bass) and David Bowie in the aptly named band Hype, in 1969.

Is there any way to gauge whether a working relationship will be productive or not?
After I hear the artist's demo and see him or her perform live, I just follow my gut feeling and go with it. At that point, there's no way to know what will happen. But when we actually start working together, I try to foresee as much as possible what level of sanity I'm going to have to deal with in the studio. It is my experience that all artists are either insane or big babies; it just has to he gauged to what degree they are afflicted. Of course, I'm being facetious here, but the "honeymoon" usually comes to an end after the first week in the studio, and then you see what the artist is really like. It can be quite scary sometimes.

Let's say an artist isn't delivering the level of performance that you believe he or she is capable of what do you do?
I will do anything that comes to mind, including some real disgusting stuff. I learned years ago, while playing improvisational music, that the music one makes is a result of one's experiences. So if artists are stuck, I often give them all "experience." This might take the form of a practical joke, or perhaps we'll just sit down and drink a little wine. I've even been known to employ a strip-o-gram to get a band to loosen up. The process of making music should he both passionate and fun. If those two vital ingredients are missing, it's not worth being in the studio.

It's also important that the artists feel comfortable—young bands, in particular, often find studios to be very intimidating—so I do my best to cloak the studio's high-tech surroundings. I might bring in table lamps to replace harsh lighting fixtures, and I encourage groups to post their favorite works of art and other familiar items around the studio. Cameras are a great source of fun, too. If you pull out a Polaroid or a Handycam, instant mirth forms in the studio.

If a performance still isn't happening, I call a break and sit with the artist to talk about the "meaning" of the piece. Sometimes musicians can get too focused on details and forget the big picture. I think it's important that the artist be reminded of what he or she is trying to communicate with music. For example, the song isn't about singing the third chorus louder than the second, it's about a woman who has left you for a trapeze artist and broke your guitar before she left with your credit cards!

Also, it's not the end of the world if you don't get the vocal or solo during the scheduled session. If the artist's biorhythms aren't right, we simply take a break and try again later. I keep a lot of tracks free, because I like to use at least eight separate tracks for lead vocals and solos. I'm a firm believer in keeping everything the artist puts on tape and then editing the best performances together on a composite track; if I'm out of tracks on the master tape, I bounce the backing tracks to a slave reel and continue recording. I like to save everything, because I've discovered that everything tends to sound much better after a day's rest. I find that the little mistakes that irked me are forgotten and that the overall performance was far better than I had imagined.

How much do you involve yourself in reworking an artist's material?
Oh, I get involved! I hate to see a basically good song go by the wayside do to a glaring fault. I consider myself a "song doctor." I try not to actually write anything myself—I know that there are many producers who take a writing credit just for changing a few notes—opting instead to help the writer take the song one step further towards being a classic song. I think it's my job to do that.

So Is there some secret pop producer's trick to making a song more commercial?
I just follow some basic rules, such as ensuring the song has a strong chorus that is heard several times. But let me give you a practical example: Bono phoned me after U2 released Unforgettable Fire and said that "A Sort of Homecoming" was picked for a single but that Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois couldn't edit down the 6minute album version. The edits just didn't flow satisfactorily.

Founding members of T. Rex: Steve Peregrine Took (left) and Marc Bolan.

I listened to the album cut and determined that commercial elements were already present but were not highlighted or repeated. A lot of attention was paid to very floaty, washy instrumental passages. I called Bono back and suggested the band ignore the album format completely and define the main musical elements of the verse, chorus, and bridge.

Fortunately, the band was performing the song on tour and the live version was considerably different from the album version. We decided to re-record the song live and use that version for the single. So I rehearsed them during the sound check for a concert at Wembley, and they all loved the tighter arrangement I suggested. The original idea to use one of the subsequent concert performances was rejected because stage adrenaline prevented its from capturing a decent, well-played track. A recording made during the soundcheck rehearsal was used instead. We did some overdubs in the studio the following week, and when the new single version was released—on a 4-song EP entitled Wide Awake in America—it became a big hit.

Do you already have a strong sense of a song's musical arrangement during preproduction, or do you develop ideas during the overdub and mixing processes?
I have a good imagination, so I often "hear" the finished work before the rhythm track is even conceived. Most of the time I go for a strong rhythm track and make sure there is enough sonic space to overlay my ideas for strings, brass, or backing vocals. A great signature line during the song's intro that is repeated between the choruses and verses is just as important as the song itself. The arrangement is everything.

Having said that, Bowie usually managed to make arranging very difficult, because he'd seldom bring a finished lyric or melody to the sessions. He'd only have a basic idea, based on a book he'd just read or a recent conversation. Even the key of the song would be arbitrary. For example, the song "Fashion" was conceived as nothing more than a riff while the band was rehearsing in a house in Jamaica. The song was called "Jamaica" even after all the music was recorded! All the little musical "tastes" were recorded simply because they sounded good; they weren't embellishing the vocal melody, because there wasn't one. Months later, back in London, Bowie admitted he couldn't come up with a lyric or melody line and suggested we abandon the track. I vaguely remember pleading with him to come up with something, and the next afternoon he arrived with most of the song finished. Some lines were written on the spot as we recorded the vocal. Bowie is the only artist I've worked with who actually writes on mic!

Because you develop your arrangement ideas very early in the production process, do you tend to "stick to the plan" as the recording progresses?
I follow my vision but not the letter of my law. It's important to avoid being a slave to a concept that should really be under constant revision. This is because I think it's important that every musician be allowed to make his or her personal contribution to the group. I have no problem modifying my plans to accommodate any spontaneous magic that occurs when the musicians start playing.

At what point do you begin the sweetening process, and how do you decide which sonic elements will best enhance the track? Almost immediately after a rhythm track is recorded, I begin laying down some elementary sweetening and don't stop until the basic track sounds great. I may ask the guitarist to double or harmonize some lines, or I'll request that the keyboardist double the bass line at certain points. Of course, there are always a few spots for the drummer to slap on a tambourine or shaker. These quick "tastes" can polish up a rhythm track without muting its punch and spirit. Another good reason to start the sweetening process fairly early is that these sonic enhancements can magnify whether the track is truly hot or not. If the track doesn't come alive after sweetening, we re-record the basic tracks, armed with a better idea of what must be changed.

The real intricate sweetening, however, takes place after all the rhythm tracks are finished. Then, we can break down the board from recording basics and plug in a whole bunch of toys, such as samplers, multieffects processors, and various types of microphones. I don't mind spending all day getting a 30-second "eargasm" on tape, but I must have all the basics completed in order to be free to orient my mind solely towards the sweetening process.

How do I choose the actual sweetening elements? I adapt what works best with the song. The same riff can sound great on many different instruments, and with MIDI modules the range of options is incredible. I trust my gut feelings to narrow the choices down. There are always emotive guidelines you can follow to select sounds that empathize with what the artist is communicating: guitars make you feel angry or passionate, brass makes you feel bold and cocky, strings make you feel sad or romantic, and so on.

Bruce Springsteen (seated, left), David Bowie (standing, far right), and Visconti (seated, right) listening to the Thin White Duke's version of Springsteen's "Saint in the City" during the recording of Young Americans in 1974. Sadly, the track was never finished.

So what inspired you to sweeten all those T. Rex tracks with classical orchestrations?
I was trained in music and Marc wasn't, but even though he knew only seven chords, he used to delight in anything I'd show him from the classical world. One of our favorite records was Instruments of the Orchestra narrated by Sir Adrian Boult, and if Marc heard something like a Cor Anglais, he would giggle with delight and say he wanted one on his records. So after "Ride a White Swan" became a hit, we made an agreement that I could suggest and write for any combination of classical instruments that I saw fit to be on a T. Rex record. Now, T. Rex records were made very quickly with no thought whatsoever of orchestral overdubs, but somehow we made it happen. On "Jeepster," for example, I used four cellos and a bassoon to play those descending bass lines. It was a good period of my life to learn and devise new tricks to make some very simple rock tracks into stunning productions.

In addition to your conventional orchestration skills, I've always loved the way that you've used sonic textures as "hooks."
I acknowledge that I am a sound addict. I love enhancing and changing the sound of an ordinary instrument and coming up with something that has never been heard before. Robert Fripp's guitar tone on Bowie's "Heroes" was filtered, ring modulated, and otherwise mangled through Eno's briefcase synth. Although the guitar plays a strong theme, the sound is the thing that is mesmerizing. Rock music is mainly about energy and sound.

Also, a conventional melodic part can really come alive when its timbre is rendered "unconventional." The riff at the beginning of "Ashes to Ashes" on Bowie's Scary Monsters album, for example, started out as a simple piano motif. But the part gained a wonderfully eerie presence after it was strangulated through an Eventide Instant Flanger that only had one side of the stereo output working. The first choice for the motif was a Fender Rhodes, but we couldn''t get one right away. I'm glad we didn't.

But what inspired fit of madness caused you to process a snare drum through a Harmonizer on Bowie's Low album?
I owned one of the first Eventide Digital Delays, so I received a press release about the Harmonizer that claimed it could change pitch without changing speed. This was science fiction to me, and no matter how much it cost, I had to have one. Now, as the manual suggested auditioning instruments and voices through the Harmonizer, I stayed up all night processing every single track on a multitrack tape. When I put a snare drum through it—while decreasing the pitch and adding feedback—I heard the heaviest snare of my live. It was truly magic, and I couldn't wait to try this thing out on a commercial recording.

About that time, Bowie asked whether I'd mind making an album with Brian Eno in France, and we commenced to make Low. I unveiled my secret weapon, patching the snare mics directly into the Harmonizer and recording the effect on track 24. When drummer Dennis Davis heard the sound, he begged to have it routed into this headphones. We soon discovered that the rate of the Harmonizer's drop off was controlled by an envelope at its input. So now that Dennis could hear the effect as he played, he was able to control the sound by how hard he hit his snare. This is why hardly anyone has duplicated that snare sound—we didn't do it in the mix, we did it live!

It seems obvious that experimentation and "happy accidents" are major components of your production style.
Yes, accidents are always waiting to happen. I'm delighted when I push up the wrong fader and discover the guitar amp blasting through a vocal mic from 30-feet away. If it sounds good, I record it and don't ask questions.

Another happy accident is when I carefully rehearse background singers or an instrumentalist to end a section on a particular note or chord. However, when the time comes, they forget and hit something so far out, I never would have thought of it. If it sounds incredible—even if it wasn't planned—I just have to go with it. I love it when stuff like that happens.

I know that you're extremely proud of your home studio, but isn't it difficult to work at home when you've tracked in the best studios the world has to offer?
Believe me, my digital-editing facilities at home are far better than in any studio I've ever worked in. I can bring tracks home from anywhere I work and do some scary, tricky stuff with my Macintosh and MIDI equipment. I can edit drum tracks, "tune up" vocals and guitar solos, and record overdubs at home and simply transfer the results back to whatever format I was using in the large studio. Then, I can mix in the grandeur of an SSL or Neve room.

And there's another benefit to my home studio: I can take on projects that tickle my fancy but lack heavy financial backing. This situation is directly responsible for my being able to work with Alex Forbes, a very cool songwriter who wrote "Don't Rush Me" for Taylor Dayne. Alex has another one of those "quirky" voices—and she writes brilliant lyrics—so I casually entered a writing/producing relationship with her.

We now have a completed album that contains eight mutually penned songs. And although the project was recorded at home, it has Richie Morales on drums and Noel Redding and my son, Morgan, on bass. I am very proud of this album. I've often felt that I started my music career as a songwriter but got waylaid into being a producer for 28 years. Now I think I'm on the right track again, thanks to my home studio and Alex.

Now I do want to make clear that although I love my little home studio, I still enjoy having a million-dollar console wrapped around me in a world-class facility. My home studio is just an alternative and serves different purposes.

Obviously, you've done your share of engineering, and you continue to engineer at home. Is it difficult to turn the console over to someone else when you're producing a session in a large studio?
No matter where I work, I do most of my own engineering. I've been working like this for 25 years, so it isn't that hard for me to engineer and produce simultaneously. However, making records requires teamwork, so I'll often work with another engineer or a talented assistant. If the engineer is really hot, I will rarely interfere. I'm always open to learning about different recording techniques and new microphones, so I turn the experience of working with an engineer into a personal seminar. But if I'm looking for a very specific sound and I know exactly how I want to get it, I have no problem giving the orders. Too much is at stake to allow everybody to put in their two cents.

Do you feel a producer must have engineering chops or just an intuitive ear for music?
Without a doubt, you need some recording chops. After all, this is a profession. Making a record has become a highly technical procedure that requires a vast knowledge of music and technology. You can never know enough. Every month, I read all the journals pertaining to my profession and have regular talks with my colleagues about new equipment and how it works. As a musician I make it a regular practice to jam with my mates and listen to as much new music as I can stand. Knowledge is power.

What are some of the major differences between being a producer today and when you started your career in the late 1960s?
There are so many more ways of recording music now. I was fortunate enough to start out when 4-track recorders were pretty much all that was available. My learning curve was slow and steady. I pity a producer starting out today!

Cut and paste wasn't even conceived in the days of T. Rex, and two machines couldn't be locked up until the early 1980s. We did everything on the fly. We speed up and slowed down tapes, we put buckets on our heads, and we swung mics around the studio like lassos to emulate the Doppler effect. We had very few tools capable of making fantastic sounds, so we taxed our imaginations to reproduce the noises we heard in our heads. And my generation was living in the shadow of the Beatles, who made fantastic, surreal recordings with even less equipment than we had!

However, it is still the producer's, job to record music, and the responsibilities have remained the same throughout the years. You work within the confines of a budget and strive to cut a record that makes such a shocking contribution to the culture that it is considered a classic. So, in a sense, nothing has really changed except the toys.