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, Joe Cocker’s “Little Help From My Friends,” Van Halen’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, and loads of other classics. Imagine the roster: Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen, and on and on and so forth and so on. Brother to superproducer Glyn Johns (Kinks, Stones, Who, Beatles), uncle to producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon), Andy helped write the book on raw, white-hot guitars.
Now he’s up in a kind of American Indian surf camp called Phoenix Ranch, working on an album with Tracii Guns and the Brides of Destruction, only slightly out of his element. They’re working on Pro Tools, experimenting with different digital amp modeling.
“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. Drums that move acoustically, amps that throb. 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.
“If it’s off, it’s off,” he shrugs. “Digital has a sound to it, it’s kind of electronic.”
Plus, Johns is trying to maintain the integrity of the performance. “When the Pro Tools thing came along, I’d go to other people’s sessions, and I’d see two guys with typewriters typing up the music,” he says, straight-faced. “They’d have the band play a verse, and then they’d fix that, and then they’d use that sound for everything. And I thought: That’s not music. It’s Lego.”
He and the Brides are trying to go all digital, but they’re struggling, resorting often to a small Fender tube amp to sweeten the guitar sound. Johns can’t help it he’s attracted to the sound of moving air. After all, he invented the big drum sound everybody uses now, on a little Zeppelin tune called “When The Levee Breaks.”
“I’d stand next to Bonham’s kit and then I’d go in the control room, and I’d go, ‘This is not translating,’” he recalls. “We were at this old sort of farmhouse mansion, which had a big hallway with stairs going up to landings. So I pulled Bonham out of the room with the rest of the band and I put him on his own in this hall. It hadn’t ever been done before. I used two fairly directional mics, [Beyerdynamic] M160s, about 10 feet away. You get much past 10 feet and it starts flamming. Then I just compressed the hell out of them, put on this Binson Echorec [analog delay unit] that Pagey had — that was his idea. It’s a classic drum sound. And now, everybody uses room mics.”
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!”