Tony Platt is a music producer and sound engineer who has worked with some of the biggest names in rock, metal, jazz and reggae including AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Clare Teal and Bob Marley. He spoke to LINE HILTON about how to get the best out of studio sessions.
What is the role of the producer?
Principally it’s to focus on the artist. My aim is to produce the album that the artist has in their head. If I can achieve that, then I’ve done my job. But there are other elements that come into play as well. The producer sits in this no man’s land between the artist, their listener, their label and sometimes even their manager. You’re trying to please several masters but, at the end of the day, the artist comes first.
What’s your advice for emerging artists who want to get signed?
It’s best to get signed by a major label when you’ve already established your audience and you’ve had a bit of success. Then you can call the shots.
A record label, these days, is a service provider. A good major label will have good distribution, marketing and PR. If you can purchase that as an artist on your terms, that’s a good way to go.
But all these services are available independently. If you can’t get them through a label on your terms, you might as well purchase them as bespoke services. That way you will hang on to more of the money that you make.
Who influenced you in your approach to working with singers?
The person that opened the door on that for me was the producer Mutt Lange, I worked as an engineer with him.
I learnt early on with Mutt that there is a right way and wrong way to work with vocals. Just watching how he related to singers and his attention to detail taught me a lot.
There is a bit of an ongoing joke about the neuroses of singers. But I don’t think it’s any surprise that singers end up being slightly neurotic because their instrument is part of their physical being. You can’t change your vocal cords like you can change your guitar strings.
Your role as a producer is not to just think about engineering, but to also consider the psychology and philosophy of the artist. It’s about ensuring the studio environment is a creative one.
What does “creative environment” mean for you?
The environment that the artist feels most comfortable with – and that is different for everyone. Some artists love the buzz of being in an urban environment. Others like to step out the door [of the studio] and be in a rural setting. I’m often asked if I have a favourite studio. My answer is that I find the best studio for the project.
A lot of singers feel intimidated when they step into a studio. What advice do you have for them?
Communication is key. Speak up when things don’t feel or sound right. Sometimes musicians and artists who are incredibly eloquent when they’re writing or singing, aren’t eloquent when it comes to describing what they want and what they can hear in their heads. I spend a lot of time trying to draw out what it is that they’re looking for.
It’s also great if a singer has a little bit of knowledge [about the recording process] so that they can use the studio as a tool rather than seeing it as an impediment to the process.
What did you learn from working with AC/DC and Iron Maiden?
What sets AC/DC apart from other rock bands is the musical composition, because no two instruments are competing for the same space. Angus and Malcolm [Young] are essentially playing in unison but in different positions, so it sounds like one big rhythm guitar. The bass is just deep and low and rumbling and the drums are fat in the middle of that. Nothing is getting in the way of the vocal so the vocal can do virtually what it wants.
I also produced a couple of tracks for Iron Maiden and at that time they had a singer who sang a lot lower. You had the bass, drums, guitar and vocal all trying to fight for the same space. For me it never really worked until they got Bruce Dickinson in there who punched right above everything else.
What I learned from that – and I also learned this from Mutt – is that it doesn’t matter what style of music it is, the orchestration is paramount. If you get that solid arrangement right, it’s going to sound great.
Is it true you sent Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson off to singing lessons?
I did encourage him to get lessons. He had the range but what worried me was he didn’t have full control over it. He would really fire it up, but I was worried that he would do some serious damage to his voice. He did get lessons and it helped – and he’s still going strong today.
Do you think some voices are better suited to recording and others are better live?
No. It’s just a matter of getting it right in the studio. As a producer I always like to go and see an artist live. I want to see them in their natural habitat and how they relate to their audience. I also like watching the audience to see what it is that they like about the band. The challenge is to try and recreate that situation in the studio.
From the singer’s perspective, it’s a bit like being an actor and understanding the difference between TV and film, and stage. For stage you must be larger than life and project, whereas for TV and film every gesture and movement is amplified. To a certain extent a similar thing happens with music. For live you can get away with a lot more flamboyance because you have a visual context. With recording, the vocal needs extra personality and to convey a lot of different emotions.
How do you choose the artists you work with?
I like working with people who have some infrastructure. I got fed up with making great albums that didn’t get anywhere because there was no marketing, no label, no management. I made the rule that there should be a bit of infrastructure so that we’re making an album that has a future.
On the creative side, it’s about having that discussion to see if you and the artist can be on the same page and if I can bring something to a project.
What makes you see red in the studio?
I will put up with pretty much anything from someone who is talented enough. I’m not overly annoyed if someone is a prima donna. But if they’re a prima donna and they’re not delivering, I’ll see red.
What characteristics do you admire in a singer?
I love it when a singer thinks about their voice as an instrument and can manipulate it as an instrument. That’s an endearing quality.
Do you think the album is still relevant?
I think the EP is more relevant. The EP is a lot more accessible budget-wise for artists. Artists are writing much more consistently now. I encourage them to record three or four songs when they’ve got them together. Put them out as an EP and do some gigging with those songs. Do it a few times in a year and then you’ll have an album. Artists are creating an archive rather than these chunks of material.