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Phill Brown

Legendary record producer and engineer Phill Brown has worked with some of the biggest and influential names in rock music; Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and countless others. His insights into the world of studio recording, provides a fascinating look behind the scenes of the world of a recording engineer. In Ultimate Guitar’s continuing series, "The Producers and Engineers" Phill Brown speaks to Joe Matera about his illustrious career, recording Led Zeppelin, how he captured some of those classic guitar tones on many classic albums and working with analog tape.

What was it like working with Led Zeppelin in the studio?

The full band were there - John Bonham, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and east end heavy, Peter Grant, with a couple of minders. Peter was vast, probably 20 stone, and had difficulty squeezing into the luxurious, high-backed leather chairs that were positioned on the riser behind the Helios desk. To me he appeared very seedy, with thinning long hair, sweaty skin and ill-fitting clothes. He dealt with me and the other minions around him in an off-hand manner and gave off a somewhat threatening vibe. Control room 2 was not a large room, measuring only 15 by 20 feet. With the brown-carpeted walls on the floor and ceiling, dull lighting, desk and machines, nine people (band, manager, minders, myself and an assistant) and this strange aggressive attitude, the sessions were immediately claustrophobic and scary.

The members of the band, apart from Bonham, had long flowing curly hair - looking like Jesus or some Greek gods. Jones was friendly and polite and on another planet altogether. Bonham and Plant were relaxed and relatively easy to deal with, but Page was dark, moody and difficult. I found him particularly hard to communicate with. He was self-centered and into some form of weird spiritual crap. A great fan of the writings of Aleister Crowley, he owned Crowley’s old residence, Boleskine house.

We worked mainly on two songs; “Four Sticks” and “Stairway to Heaven.” The backing tracks had drums, bass and some electric guitars already recorded and there were good vocals on both tracks. We spent most of our time working on “Stairway to Heaven” - trying out flute parts on the introduction with John Paul Jones and overdubbing guitar ideas and solos with Jimmy Page. We worked on lead guitar parts to “Stairway to Heaven” endlessly, trying out different styles, sounds and effects. We tried the guitar through Leslie, desk distortion and various pedals and recorded takes continuously. The guitar overdubs took days to perform and get right. Listening to the final version of “Stairway to Heaven,” it’s hard to imagine how bad some of the playing and tuning was. There were many loose timing mistakes and wrong notes from Page, and the control room atmosphere remained intense.

There was very little direct communication from any of the band, and having Peter Grant sitting beside me did not help. I found him belligerent and rude, and aware of the many stories about Grant’s well-known bullyboy techniques, I was disturbed by his presence. On his death in 1996 there were glowing obituaries in newspapers and music magazines, describing him as “always being on the side of the artist” and “fair.” I would have first hand knowledge of this so-called “fair” attitude to artists later, while working with Jeff Beck.

The sessions with Zeppelin were long, with no convenient breaks and I would be at the desk for some 15 to 18 hours a day. I had to maintain a constant high level of concentration and vigilance during this time - it was not easy. You couldn’t fuck up on projects like these. It was very tiring and the severe atmosphere generated by Peter, his minders and the band, did not leave me with warm memories. I thought Page was a good guitarist but not on a par with Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. I was relieved when the Zeppelin sessions were over and I could return to projects that were more laidback and easygoing.

Was it hard capturing Jimmy Page’s guitar tones?

I set up an AKG D20 and a Neumann u87 on the guitar amps. The Helios desk had limited EQ so we relied on a good sound in the room from Jimmy. Also we did what the band or Peter asked. I was still young and learning.

When it came to drums, how important were they to how a band and the guitar sounded on record, for example Led Zep’s sound was totally built from John Bonham’s drum sound.

You always need a good drum sound – this is often the bedrock of any recording. My set-up in the ‘70’s was AKG D12 on bass drum, Shure 57 on the snare, and Neumann u87’s on toms and overheads. I now use Coles on overheads, and Seinnheiser 421 mic’s on the toms – a good sounding room with a high ceiling is very important. Since Talk Talk I have used more room mics to create ‘air’ and ‘space’ – usually a Sony c48.

Read the entire interview at: Ultimate Guitar

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