31 Aug Recording “Back in Black” (the album): Interview(s) with Tony Platt
I’m seeing links disappear therefore for now, I’m posting “raw”, unfiltered and unprocessed (by me) data on the subject.
I’m posting the whole text here, then will provide the link(s) but not sure they exist all (i.e., clickbale).
I feel all of this information – already widely available on the net – has to be saved and stored for us. Recent re-reading of all of this on my behalf has brought me to new findings, namely, Tony Platt’s signal path for the Young brothers guitars on the Back in Black Album (guitars – Angus with a Schaffer-Vega Diversity System in lieu of a normal cable: it DID affect TONE!- , amps, mics, EQUALIZER and tape!) and his philosophy of recording those albums back then.
It’s a whole lotta reading, but I think you may be pleased.
Let’s start with a video interview to make it more pleasant (video courtesy of member Kirk2000: thanks Kirk!):
The AC/DC sound – guitars, amps, and mics
The Recording of Back in Black at Bahamas. tony platt, the recording engineer, writes
O.K. – the details about the recording of B in B are quite widely documented but the basics are.
I do have various preferred microphones but will always vary my choices to suit the room and the particular instruments.
The drums mics were O/H – U87 or U67, Snr top – KM86, Snr under – Shure SM57, Toms – Shure SM7, Kick – U47, Hats AKG 414 or 451.
Gtrs – 1 x U87 & 1 x U67 on each
Bass – AKG D12 & DI
no compression on drums or gtrs
Can’t remember vocal compressor
analogue 24track @ 30ips
and of course the most important components – AC/DC!
I know this sounds a bit obvious but really the gtr sound comes from getting it right when it comes out of the amplifier and then recording it properly. When you do that then the musician plays better because they can hear the results of their efforts and then that makes you look good because that makes it sound even better still. Choosing a good place in the room helps and using good equipment (and applying some good old common sense) plays a part.
Originally Posted by Rockman
It’s an honor and a pleasure to have you here. I had a follow up question about the drum sounds, if you don’t mind… I was particularly interested in how you got such great depth on the snare sound on that album. I read somewhere that there were some delays and an eventide H910 involved. Would you feel comfortable expanding on that topic a little? To be more specific… What kind of settings did you generally use on those delays? And how far down did you detune on the H910? (which I assume was blended in with the original snare).
[tony plat:] You are absolutely right! We fed a gated snare signal into an H910 detuned to about 93 with the feedback and anti feedback up. This was a real pain as it would fail to trigger sometimes. Yes it was just under the real snare. no other harmonizer will work!! I often use short delays to fatten up the sound of many instruments.
Couple of questions regarding the mic setup for the guitars.
Firstly was it one cab per guitarist or was it a more involved setup?
Yes – but we changed the combinations of head and cab to get the sound for each song.
how did you place the mics? what kind of distance from the cabinet was involved and how did you balance and blend the two mics together from a phase coherence perspective? did you adjust this dependant on the song or to the extenet to which the head cabinet combo was being driven volume wise?
I don’t really know how to answer this! I combined my experience with my instinct and used my ears to decide what worked. I honestly am not trying to be a clever **** – that is the way I work! Obviously I avoided phase cancellation and adjusted as required.
Did you start with one as your main picture and add some ‘air’ with the other or did you opt for getting a wider tonal picture by having them both similar distances from the cab and having them on different parts of the cone/cabinet? Was the any degree that you offset the angle of the diaphraghm to account or the amount of air pressure etc. just looking to get some idea of what you were fishing for when you were micing them up and if there were any hard and fast starting points outside of the ‘touch and tone’ the Mal and Angus supply to getting the results you did?
Again it really isn’t that complicated! I listened to the sound of the guitar and found the best way to get that tone and power on to tape. What I was fishing for was to capture what they did.
Apologies for the multi questons – It’s pretty much the best rock guitar sound ever committed to tape and I’d kick myself if I didn’t take the opportunity to ask!
No problem! I hope I have got you closer to the feel of how I go about things and thank you so much for your kind words.
Originally Posted by timtoonz
Which MCI console was it? I’ve got an old 416B I’m having fun with – mostly as a front end for drums.
You know I’m not sure – one of the JH series?
And NO compression on drums? Never woulda’ guessed that. It sounds like an 1176 on ‘smack’. Huh!
No compression on recording – sometimes a little on the toms or overheads when mixing. Is an 1176 on ‘smack’ like a DBX on ‘crack’ [refeers to the comment above]
Of course, I don’t have a U47 for my kick, either….
Then a Beyer M380 is awesome!
What I really want to know how this album have such a amazinf prescence and a great center!…if you listen “You shook me all night long” what strikes me is the center…the kick and snare are just in perfect center and the vocal right in the middle ///is scary …sounds like brian is singing just here in my face!! maybe sounds crazy…but how you make this amazing center…I did not hear that often….
This has a lot to do with using the sound of the room and mixing very gently and quietly – that way you can get the definition right. making sure everything is in phase helps too and ensuring that the signal path is as clean as you can get it.
Originally Posted by Jaguar Dreams
Thanks so much for sharing the mic choice information. I recently found myself studying BIB and thinking “no way in hell that’s a 57 on those guitars, must be an LDC or SDC”. I was also pretty convinced that was an AKG on the hihat. It’s cool to get some validation from the source!
A few more drum questions since they do sound so awesome:
a) Can you talk about the mixing on the overheads? It sounds, on Hell’s Bells in particular, like the cymbals are in another room from the rest of the drums. Was that natural reverb from the room, or did you have the overheads going to a send where they were high-passed and then verbed?
I can’t say I had particularly noticed that!. There was no reverb on the overheads and i never high pass cymbals as the main harmonics of cymbals are actually the lower frequencies. I wonder if you are listening to a ‘re-mastered’ version which (in my opinion) is nothing like the original mastering?
b) Can you talk about how you got the kick and snare so isolated? In a nicely live room it can be hard to, for instance, keep something like a U47 on kick from picking up tons of stuff besides the kick. Same thing with the KM86 on the snare. Was it just really good mic placement or did you, for instance, use a blanket tunnel on the kick?
They are not really isolated as such – it’s just that the spill from one to the other has not been compromised by excessive EQ. I do sometimes use a blanket tunnel on the kick and I have been know to create a snare ‘collar’ to keep hi-hat out of the snare mic. Generally though this is when either the kit is not well balanced acoustically or the drummer does not have good dynamic control.
Thanks so much for being a part of such an awesome album, and for taking questions!
Originally Posted by The Reel Thing
wow, thanks for that tip! i tried it and it works wonders.
i used to fatten the snare with a sansamp unit, but the H910 sound is so instant 80’s – really cool!
The irony of course is that whenever I have tried to use it on contemporary recordings artists often say it’s ‘too 80s’ !
Originally Posted by jbuntz
That 910 trick really works! I tried it on a low, dry snare it really made it sound quite back in black. Any more details on the kick in terms of head? How ballsy can you get with the 47 in terms of proximity. Putting a 47 on the kick makes me nervous. I don’t want to do a $8000 experiment.
The head on the kick will have been a white coated. I quite like the thicker Emperor heads.
The U47 is perfectly capable of taking the kick drum. It is of course not inside! I always angle it slightly away too and use the pad – the -6db is best but the -10db will help if it is a very loud drum.
I often find the world is divided with those who prefer H to H and those who prefer B in B!
They were recorded in different ways. I didn’t actually record H to H – it was done in Roundhouse Studios which was very dead so there was no spill between the instruments. As a result when I came to mix it I needed to create the impression of the room and fed drums and guitars through speakers into Studio 2 at Basing Street.
I was quite pleased with the results but when I was asked to record B in B this led me to make sure I had plenty of controlled spill to help blend the instruments.
I’m not sure I would describe B in B as darker or H to H as warmer so I am not sure what you mean? I think h to H is perhaps lighter than B in B?
The two microphone thing came about because I wanted to spread the guitars more without pushing them too loud.
Thanks for the compliments!
Originally Posted by desol
Tony, i need more. lol
Are there any other little tid-bits you could share about the mixing of highway to hell? Any other thoughts, insights, gear used…. Maybe what board it was mixed on? It doesn’t sound like there was a whole lot of compression used.
Well it was mixed on a Helios console which had some F760 compressors built in but no not much compression used. I really only had the EMT 140 plates, EMT DDL, tape delay, some Eventide gear, 1176. It was the same room and board where I mixed Catch A Fire.
I used some Altec monitors to feed stuff back into the studio and create more ambience.
Sorry – not much more to tell!
SoloDallas’ note: ALL OF THIS CAME FROM http://folk.ntnu.no/roef/tonyplat.html, redirected from http://www.gearslutz.com/board/q-haydn-bendall-mick-glossop-mike-howlett-tony-platt/127182-question-tony-back-black.html
GEAR listed as brought in the studio at Compass Point:
this is from Compass point studios:
I went through some old files here, and didn’t yet locate anything from “Back In Black,” but I did find what gear AC/DC brought with them here for tracking during 1985-86, produced by George Young.
Here is an excerpt from the equipment list:
2 Marshall 200 watt heads [major or 2000 series – Roe]
23 Marshall 100 watt heads
1 Marshall 50 watt head
3 Marshall 50 watt Combos
1 Marshall 8 x 10″ cabinet
10 Marshall 4 x 12″ cabinets
2 Ampeg 300 watt Bass heads
1 Crate Amp
7 Gibson SG guitars
1 Epiphone SG guitar
1 Gibsn Firebird Gitar
1 Pink ESP Strat guitar
1 Gibson “Custom” guitar
1 Gibson Dove guitar
2 JD Custom Firebird guitars
1 Gretsch Roc Jet guitar
1 Gretsch Firebird guitar [?]
1 Squire P bass
1 Fender P bass
1 Williams Custom bass
1 Sonar drum kit w/2 Sonar snares
2 Gretsch snares
There were also lots of the normal little stuff, leads, etc.
http://recforums.prosoundweb.com/index. … msg_131303
This came from: http://folk.ntnu.no/roef/compass.html redirected from http://recforums.prosoundweb.com/index.php/m/131303/0/#msg_131303
The following one was posted on prosound, http://recforums.prosoundweb.com/index.php/mv/msg/9856/0/48/0/
OK Acadac fans, it’ time at last to delve a little deeper into the Black In Back world!
Tony Platt has been most gracious to spend a lot of his valuable time answering the questions many of you asked. Remember, I sorted through the original queries, and edited them somewhat, so as to try to minimise the burden on Tony.
Also remember that (as most of you know by personal experience) you can’t always remember exactly what things you do in the heat of a session; rather, you recall the general concepts that you use.
I would like to first publicy thank Tony myself, and on behalf of all the PSW members. Hopefully this thanks will reduce the number of “thank you Tony” posts!
I dedicated three train journeys and an early morning to this and got
Here we go!
Terry: First, as I know that you were in our Compass Point Studio A, I assume you were recording on the MCI console that was there at the time, and also on the MCI JH-114 24 track machine? That tape machine was purchased by CB in 1978, so that would seem to fit.
TONY: Right on both counts – the monitoring was the Tannoys in Lockwood cabinets hanging on the rail (are they still there?)
Question: How did you achieve THAT drum sound? Mics used? Placement? Of course the CPS room was part of it.
TONY: It’s a story I’ve told a number of times. I always check out the room before setting up so we walked around with a snare drum to find the optimum spot. Generally the room is quite dead but at one spot (just outside the booth) the sound got much bigger and fuller. Moving only slightly either way changed it a lot. So we set up the kit with the snare right there. Afterwards I was told that, above the finishing, the ceiling is much higher or less damped at the point so that explained it. We tuned the kit carefully of course and experimented with mics until we got the optimum set up. I did alter it during the ourse of the recording if the song needed it. It really wouldn’t be of use to list the mics and placements as the choices were for that album, with that drummer, in that room, on those songs, with that band, at that moment in time and of course it cannot be repeated. Naturally when we went back to do Flick of the Switch many of those circumstances were the same so we were able to reproduce it quite easily. The sensible use of ambience was very important along with a clear idea of the sound we wanted which made mixing easier. I am now old enough and confident enough to acknowledge my part in achieving it too and tend to see that particular drum sound as something of a culmination of work done prior to that with similar drummers such as Simon Kirke.
Question: How much of it went to tape like that & how much was “in the mix?”
TONY: I always maintain that the best sounds start from the recording – you can ‘tart up’ a lesser recording but will always be playing catch up. Nevertheless, what you hear is a result of all the components and the mix played a part in that. I believe recording on the MCI and mixing through the Neve was a factor too. We used the room at the mix studio as a chamber during the mix and an Eventide 910 was also involved but the official secrets act forbids me to say more!
Question: Were there lots of edits on the drum tracks / 2inch masters to achieve the final bed tracks?
TONY: No. There were not ‘Drum Tracks’ as such – the backing tracks were drums, bass and two guitars. We did edit a couple of takes together but I can’t remember which songs. This was usual practice in those days!
Question: Someone said they heard that the drum takes were done in two separate passes. First the kit pieces, kick snare etc, then a second take for cymbals to achieve separation…something about using rubber mats…any truth to that?
TONY: Absolute nonsense. If that someone listens to the playing and the music rather than just the sound they will hear how absurd that is!
Question: This may be a silly question, but with the drums did they use a click? And to get hypothetical, would you if you were doing it now?
TONY: No clicks, just good players. AC/DC have their own click track – he’s called Phill Rudd!!
Question: What was the signal chain for guitars? (Someone especially mentioned Shoot To Thrill for this.)
TONY: Amp, Mic, EQ, tape – NO COMPRESSION!! The solos were all done using Angus’s radios with him in the control room and the amps in two other rooms, one live, one dead. We did replace a section during the mix on Shoot To thrill actually and didn’t have the radio with us. The sound was quite different and difficult to match.
Question: It seems like “Back in Black” used the technique of scooping out the mids on the rhythm guitar tracks to make room for the lead gtr’s and vocal. Prior to that, It seems like a lot of records had a lot of “nose” on the rhythm parts. If this is indeed correct, was there a watershed moment when this discovery was made? It seems very popular today.
TONY: I learned to engineer on old Helios consoles which had limited EQ so am naturally disposed to getting rid of the parts of the sound I don’t want and pushing up the level. The sound of the guitars is the sound that Angus & Malcolm naturally produce. However, I had developed a technique of using two condenser mics on guitars to achieve a wider spread so we did that too. The sound was developed by trying different combinations of amps and changing the mic position accordingly. There wasn’t one single approach for all the songs.
Question: Are the rhythm guitars doubled or tripled?
TONY: The only doubling is after Angus’s solo he would carry on playing rhythm so the dynamic didn’t drop
Question: One reader remembers reading in Guitar Player Magazine, maybe an Angus and/or Malcolm interview, that their tone was because of the unique sound of the Marshall 200 watt heads. Also, they remember him/them saying that they played at a not-so-loud volume, just at the edge of breakup; too distorted and things sound small (or lose their clarity maybe). Truth to this? In other words, what were the amps used, and did they really play loud?
TONY: Perhaps they were being coy! Really their unique sound is the way they play – I regularly have to point out that even if I did put up the same mics on the same Marshall amp in the same room, it wouldn’t sound the same unless Angus played the guitar too! The amps were a collection of modern and vintage Marshalls from 50 watt upwards. I generally find though that the best sound is achieved from the flat front cabinets with the lower wattage speakers. If the speakers are too capable of handling the power then the crunch isn’t the same. Now what do we mean by loud? No they weren’t on ’11’ if that’s what you mean but the sounds were clear and punchy. The best description I have heard was from my former manager Ralph Simon who called it ‘a clean dirty sound’! I think you need to make sure you can still hear the strings vibrating.
Question: What mic was used on Brian? Any compressors, or effects?
TONY: U87 or U67 either DBX160 or Urei 1176
Question: Did he double track any vocals? If so where does the double sit in the mix compared to the main vocal track?
TONY: If I remember rightly we did D/T in places but it sat well back in the mix. There is a technique that Mutt liked to use and which I developed a bit further but again you can’t expect me to give up all the secrets!
Question: Was any special EQ used, especially subtractive? A reader says he expects this would be a hard vocal to record, and might take this.
TONY: The special EQ used was listening to the sound of his voice and adjusting it until it sounded good! It would be different depending on the key and the style of the song along with the time of day (and what happened the night before!) Brian’s voice was easy to record – he did the difficult bit!
Question: What kind of bass,? Did he use an amp and DI, all amp, all DI, possibly with reamping later? What mics and any eq or compression?
TONY: Fender Jazz bass with an Ampeg amp. I always use two mics on the cabinet plus D/I. Probably 1176 compression.
Question: How were background vocals recorded and by whom?? Just Malcolm and Cliff? Or did Angus also sing? Maybe Mutt?
TONY: Mostly Mal and Cliff but others joined in on occasions
Question: Was it the 2 or 3 of them grouped around a mic singing at one time?
Question: And if you possibly remember what mic and input chain was used on them, and what effects/pan settings may have been used in the final mix.
TONY: It would have been a U87 on omni with an 1176 or DBX160. AC/DC do not like effects!
Question: What is the particular order that things were done? Did they all play rhythm section (assuming rhythm guitars, bass, drums) together in one room. With or without separation? Different parts of the room? No headphones?
TONY: Backing track – Drums, Bass & two guitars. The bass amp was in the booth and we screened off the guitar amps. I always try to use spill to enhance the overall sound by making sure that the nature and content of the spill is conducive (wow that sounds very hip!). Headphones were used.
Question: Players in the same room or different rooms?
TONY: Same room
Question: …then use that as a template replacing each instrument performance. Using headphones and maximum performances in sound spaces. Drums then bass then guitar?
TONY: Absolutely not!
Terry: Sometimes you read about a band and producer/engineer “knowing” they are onto something big, that this album will be huge. did you or anyone have any idea how big this was going to be?
TONY: I don’t think you can really ‘know’. So many albums you feel should be big but aren’t and conversely others that you just can’t work out why!! We knew it was good but then we felt Highway to Hell was good too.
Terry: And so it was! A reader heard that a lot of “For Those About To Rock” were songs left over from the Back In Black session, just wondering this is true and if so, what songs might they be?
TONY: No to my knowledge – obviously as the songs are generated by Malcolm & Angus they will presumably have had ideas they didn’t use on BinB but there were no extra ‘songs’ recorded
Question: AC/DC played a ton live, in your opinion were they a very tight band in the studio? Were they able to knock the songs out pretty quickly, or were there multiple takes? Then edited?
TONY: In my opinion they are the tightest band in the world but not in a clinical sense. Their tightness is much to do with the way the play for each other. The songs came fairly quickly but we did a number of takes on each one. The intention was to get the best combination of sound, feel and tightness – I always use the analogy of taking a picture with a camera – you wait until you think you have the right moment and then ‘click’ !
Question: AC/DC always seems like a very simple band; sometimes today you hear of people using 100 tracks or more for a song. On average how many tracks were needed for a complete song?
TONY: We had 24 tracks – that’s it! I think this contributes greatly to the immediacy. We had to make decisions there and then. I am not against using more tracks if available but it just means you have to be more disciplined. Frankly using 100 tracks seems to indicate either the song isn’t up to much or the playing isn’t. I can’t see how you can fit that much sound into a stereo mix (especially if it is going to end up squashed onto an mp3!)
Question: A reader would like to know what general approach was taken. What were the limits of the studio? Did everyone play at once? If not, why, and who? If so, was everything kept or were parts redone?
TONY: I think most of this is covered in answers above? I am not sure what you mean by ‘limits of the studio’. The only overdubs were lead guitar and vocals. We did perhaps drop in a fluffed note or missed chord to patch up an otherwise great take
Question: Were there time constraints? What did the band think when they were finished (“this is great” or “man, I wish we had two more weeks”).
TONY: We had a specific time to make the album because the band went straight out on tour – I think it was a total of 8 weeks. My memory of the playback when we had finished mixing was that we were all very buzzed by the results. It didn’t quite sink in until I got home and played it and even then I still had the ‘professional attachment’ that changes the way you listen to music if you work with it. The first time you know is when you hear it on the radio. My personal biggest buzz was walking into Madison Square Garden when the crew were setting up for Van Halen and the PA guy was using BinB to check out the PA – made the hairs stand out on the back of my neck!
Question: Who was the band leader? Who was in charge of the session (final word)? How well was the band rehearsed?
TONY: These were very democratic sessions! Mal & Angus always knew what they wanted and Mutt had already worked with them to bring that out on HtoH so this was very much everybody getting together to do what they do best. I always feel that the best conditions for making music is when people are working with not for each other. So I guess the final word was down to who had the best argument for or against. Naturally the reason for having a producer is to have someone capable of an objective viewpoint and therefore everyone looked to Mutt to guide things but if someone had another opinion it was always considered. Band leader is a difficult term in respect of this band. In overall terms everyone has a job to do in the band and gets on with it but I guess I always viewed Mal as the band leader because he took responsibility for getting things done. The band were as well rehearsed as they needed to be!
Question: Clearly, when you listen to this band, there is HUGE energy pouring out. Do they just always have this? Or is it hit and miss.
TONY: I think they have it most of the time – of course everybody has their off days but with this band (as with all truly great bands) if the energy flags then the professionalism kicks in to overcome that. These guys love playing and love people liking their music – it’s the contract performers should have with their audience, to try to give them the best show ever.
Question: How big a role did the fact they were introducing a new singer play? How nervous were they about this and how much do you think it contributed to their “drive” to make a great record?
TONY: All the circumstances surrounding this album contributed. In my humble opinion this was how they grieved for Bon – it was a grown up positive reaction to a horrible event which would have probably met with his wholehearted approval. Where Brian was concerned everyone was going out of their way to make him feel welcome and comfortable. My respect for him is immense because at the time it was the hardest gig to step into and he managed it with such humour and determination.
Question: How was working with Mutt? How hands on?
TONY: Mutt is fantastic to work with and I learned so much about production from him. He has acquired so much knowledge about the whole process that it is easy to develop ideas with him because communication is easy. Hands on or off doesn’t really apply.
Terry: I can second that! Re: The vibe in the studio with it being the first album after Bon’s death. Was there a sense of pressure and did they try to change from their past ways with Bon. The emotions must have been enormous. Brian must have felt some pressure to fit in as well.
TONY: I think I covered this in the answer above? I’m not sure what you mean by their ‘past ways with Bon’! The vibe was very good throughout – being together in one place helped.
Question: One reader would like to know how involved in the song writing Mutt was. Did ac/dc show up with a bunch of songs and he made a few little changes/suggestions or was he doing more of the writing with the band kinda thing. also, what kind of pre-production was done and for about how long?
TONY: Mutt is always involved in the songwriting but as with any really great producer this doesn’t necessarily mean he sat there and wrote songs. Sometimes that involvement is being the person to bounce ideas off, sometime the person to offer an alternative perspective etc. He was involved from the start (in fact this had begun before Bon died). I think this question perhaps stems from the illusion that a producer is the person that can turn a turd into gold? To be as great a band as AC/DC you have to actually have all the components already there.
The producer takes these and helps to present them in their best light. Sometimes this requires making changes, sometimes polishing it a little and at other times it is having the good sense to leave it alone. The pre-production/writing stretched over several weeks but with Bon’s death in the middle the time factor is distorted. A lot of lyric writing went on in the studio.
Question: And several asked about the cigarette lighting sound at the beginning of Pollution…was it real, or sfx?
TONY: It’s for real!
Question: And the count off being left on BIB…was it always planned, or just decided later that it was cool?
TONY: I think it happened when we were cutting the album together – it sounded good!
Question: Do you have any knowledge of “The Ghost of Bon” appearing at Compass Point?
TONY: Not really but naturally his personality was around. I think this stemmed from a ‘moment’ that Brian had during recording?
Question: Was a Pink Stratocaster ever used?
TONY: Absolutely not!!
Terry: And lastly (HOORAY he says!) many send their great respect for the reggae recordings, and several have asked if you would comment at any length on the DIO Wolves recordings, or any of the Marley, etc…
…This could go on forever!”
Then we have this smaller article here, from http://www.songwriter101.com/articles/entry/Tips_From_the_Top_Tony_Platt_on_Back_in_Black
Tips From the Top: Tony Platt on Back in Black
Wanna know how the pros do it? Legendary UK producer/engineer Tony Platt was a driving force behind AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” which marked a turning point in the band’s career, as it proved once again the resilience of live, loud and melodic rock.
By Dave Simons
If you really want to know how to put together a killer recording, why not just ask someone who’s actually done it? Well, this month, that’s exactly what we’re doing – by calling upon one of the all-time wise men of the modern studio era, the U.K.‘s legendary producer/engineer Tony Platt. It was exactly 25 years ago this week that Platt entered the studio with a quintet of scruffy ex-Aussies named AC/DC and emerged six weeks later with Back in Black, for many the single-most essential hard-rock record of the modern era. Like most milestone efforts, Back in Black had little to do with pop trends of the time (which, in 1980, was all about skinny ties and Farfisa organs). Instead, with Back in Black, AC/DC – guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young, bassist Cliff Williams, drummer Phil Rudd and vocalist Brian Johnson – delivered a set of ironclad songs that were stripped to the bone, jacked up at the bottom and outfitted with some of the most tastefully lean guitar accompaniment on record.
To help the band achieve its multi-platinum apex, Platt, an engineer of impeccable good taste, utilized a handful of tried-and-true recording techniques, including clever miking, skillful mixing, allowing for maximum room sound while keeping processing to a minimum. It’s the kind of stuff even we mere mortals can benefit from today.
Back in Black marked a turning point in AC/DC’s career. Highway to Hell, issued a year earlier, had finally pushed the group into platinum territory. But, as the band was pulling together material for the all-important follow-up, in February 1980 original vocalist Bon Scott died, and the band’s future seemed uncertain. Determined to push on in spite of the circumstances, in March the group hired Newcastle-based vocalist Brian Johnson to fill Scott’s shoes, then immediately began rehearsing at London’s E’Zee Hire Studios. As a diversion, that May the group repaired to the tropical surroundings of sunny Nassau and the newly constructed Compass Point Studios, where they were joined by producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, an unlikely ally whose ear for slick pop nevertheless lent a subtle but essential mainstream sensibility to the proceedings. There, the group prepared to cut tracks for their forthcoming Atco effort, Back in Black.
With AC/DC, it had always been about the riff – and on Back in Black, there would be plenty of them: “Hells Bells,” “Shoot to Thrill,” “You Shook Me” (eventually the band’s first Top 40 hit) and the unrelenting title track featured the dynamic interplay between Angus’ right-channel SG lead and brother Malcolm’s left-channel Gretsch rhythm. From his control-room vantage point, Platt realized the sound he was after was already coming through the monitors; processing and other add-ons would be purposely left off the rhythm tracks. “We all had a good idea of how we wanted it to sound right from the start,” says Platt, “and so our goal was to get it on tape there, rather than leaving it for the final mix. Being restricted to 24 tracks meant that a lot of the decisions would be made early on, which also added to the feeling of immediacy. But most off all, they just played it like it is! There was hardly any patching required – we’d just cut takes until we had a nice balance of perfection and feel.”
As so often happens, on Back in Black the make-up of the studio itself helped determine the recording dynamics. “The set up and approach was quite different from Highway,” notes Platt, who’d come aboard during the mix phase of the previous album. “Highway had been recorded in a very dead studio, so much so that during mixing I’d fed various parts back through the speakers and into the studio, recording the result for extra ambience. So when it came time to do Back in Black, the idea was to get that ambience on tape right from the start. The room at Compass Point was fairly large but had a low-ish ceiling, which concerned me a little as I didn’t want the room to compress the sound. We spent some time choosing the right position for the drums by hitting a snare in various parts of the room. I discovered a ‘sweet spot’ where the snare suddenly sounded bigger, deeper, fuller and most important, snappier. I subsequently discovered that there was a void above this position that was obviously allowing the sound to rise without choking it!”
For Angus’ solo tracks (which were overdubbed), Platt employed two stacks, one in the main room and another in a live chamber at the far end of the building. “We used Angus’s radios to transmit to these amps,” says Platt. “The radios actually proved to be quite an important part of the sound, as they added some mid bite. I used two Neumann U67s on each cabinet, so I could pan the result where I wanted. And absolutely no compression was used at all.”
Despite the volume at hand, Platt encouraged leakage in order to maintain the ambient element. “We kept Cliff’s bass in a separate booth so that Angus and Malcolm’s guitars could really bleed into the room,” says Platt. “There was some screening over the amps, but it was minimal. For Phil drums, I kept several room mics up at all times, which I would move around depending on the effect I wanted to achieve. But really, it was mainly just tuning the drums carefully to get the sound as close to where we wanted it, with the overheads providing most of the texture.”
For newcomer Johnson, cutting vocal parts worthy of his predecessor was only half the battle; crafting lyrics that fit the AC/DC sex/rock/mayhem mold turned out to be the most daunting task of the entire six-week affair. “Because the lyrics were written as we went along, all of Brian’s vocals were overdubs,” says Platt. “But that turned out to be for the best anyway, as one of Mutt’s finest attributes as a producer is his ability to enable the singer to perform to the best of his abilities.”
Mixing for the album took place at Electric Lady Studios in New York shortly after the sessions were completed. “The size of the sound is really a combination of things,” says Platt. “The tuning is good, the arrangements are spacious, the recording isn’t heavily processed, aside from some subtle addition of delays and light reverb just for extra ambience. I remember we also monitored quietly so we could balance carefully.”
Coming off years of synthesized disco and overproduced AOR, Back in Black proved once again the resilience of live, loud and melodic rock, and listeners immediately responded. At 20 million and counting, today the band’s seventh major-label release ranks as the sixth best-selling album of all time.
“Probably the biggest buzz I’ve ever had during my time in the business was walking into Madison Square Garden one evening and hearing Back in Black coming over the house P.A.,” notes Platt. “The engineer told me he always used that album to run up a P.A., because if it sounded good with Back in Black playing, then he knew he had it! I can’t think of a better endorsement than that.”
Posted May 23, 2005