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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


Rick's Cool Collectibles

Rick's Cool Collectibles is a memorabilia mail order company serving collectors worldwide! Since 1979 the name Rick Barrett has been associated with quality collectibles including rare concert & event tickets and stubs, Led Zeppelin memorabilia, select music & sports memorabilia, stamps, coins, old postcards, and more!

This Month in
Led Zeppelin History

March 17, 1969 - A four-song performance is filmed for TV Byen in Denmark (aired on May 19, 1969)
March 21, 1969 - Zeppelin’s debut TV appearance on "How It Is"
March 25, 1969 - Filming session for the Supershow
March xx, 1970 - The band turns down many TV offers worth large sums
March 05, 1971 - Led Zeppelin started a 12-date "Thank You" tour for British fans, appearing at the clubs from their early days and charging the same admission prices as in 1968. The first show was at Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland where they played songs from their upcoming fourth album, including the first public performances of Black Dog, Stairway To Heaven, Going To California and Rock And Roll.
March 12, 1972 - Page and Plant rehearse some songs with the Bombay Orchestra
March 25, 1973 - Led Zeppelin finally release Houses of the Holy after production issues with the album cover
March 28, 1973 - Led Zeppelin released Houses Of The Holy in the UK. The album title was a dedication by the band to their fans who appeared at venues they dubbed "houses of the holy". Houses Of The Holy has now been certified 11 times Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for US sales in excess of 11 million copies.
March xx, 1974 - The band decide to release a double album due to the amount of left over studio material
March 29, 1975 - Led Zeppelin saw all six of their albums in the US Top 100 chart in the same week, alongside their latest album Physical Graffiti at No.1. Physical Graffiti has now been certified 16 times Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for US sales in excess of 16 million copies.
March 15, 1975 - Tickets for the Earls Court shows sellout within four hours
March xx, 1976 - Jimmy speaks with reporters mentioning the new album due out called Presence
March 31, 1976 - Presence is released
March 28, 1977 - Zeppelin arrive in Dallas, Texas to rehearse before opening the eleventh tour of the US
March xx, 1978 - Robert and John spend some time hanging around the Midlands
March 26, 1979 - Robert takes lead vocal at a Bad Company gig in Birmingham
March 04, 1980 - John Bonham makes a TV appearance on "Alright Now" with Bill Connolly
March 26, 2006 - Readers of Total Guitar magazine voted the guitar solo by Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven as the greatest guitar solo of all time. The 1971 track was voted ahead of tracks by Van Halen, Queen, Jimi Hendrix and The Eagles. On the 20th anniversary of the original release of the song, it was announced via US radio sources that the song had logged up an estimated 2,874,000 radio plays - back to back, that would run for 44 years solid.
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