As an engineer – and producer – Tony Platthas worked on some of the greatest albums of all time such as AC/DC’s Back In Blackalbum. His many years behind the desk producing, engineering and mixing some of the greatest bands in music, has given Platt an insight and experience very few can match. In Ultimate-Guitar’s ongoing series called ‘The Producers and Engineers” Joe Matera catches up with Tony Platt to discuss his illustrious career which covers working on Back In Black to offering up tips on capturing great guitar tones.
UG: You began your career as an assistant engineer at Island Studios in London on some of the classic albums that were made by Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Stones and others?
Tony Platt: Everybody gets this wrong, no matter how I say it or write it, but basically as an assistant engineer or tape operator, I worked on sessions with The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. Assistants would always work on lots of different sessions, so it is a bit of overstating the fact to say I engineered sessions with those bands.
In a lot of the research material I came across, it actually states the fact that you did indeed engineer on those sessions.
I know and I don’t know how that all happen to get in there. There was one point when lots of people seemed to think that I actually engineered some Def Leppard records! Something I didn’t do either. Changing perceptions is sometimes very hard. It was an important part of my learning process to be working on albums from those great bands. It was only after one week that I was at Island that I went into the studio and the only three bands in for the next three months were Led Zeppelin, Free and The Stones. It was like, ‘wow I’ve died and gone to heaven’.
From your perspective how would you define the role of a producer and engineer?
The whole essence about being a good producer and engineer is about making a balance between creativity and musicality and the technology. And if you let the technology take too much of a forefront, you are kind of making an album by numbers. And if you let creativity take too much of a forefront, then you’re capturing some special moments but they may not be as accessible or as listenable as they would be if you’d paid a bit more attention to the technology.
You were in charge as an engineer – and working with producer Mutt Lange – to capture the guitar sounds on the classic AC/DC albums, Highway To Hell and Back In Black.
Those sessions were fantastic as AC/DC are an amazing band. They already had a sound before coming into the studio. AC/DC’s sound comes from the way Malcolm and Angus’ guitars combine together. So when people ask me how ‘did you capture that sound of theirs’, the straightforward answer is really, I just didn’t fuck up! The sound was already there and I just captured it. But I captured it in a way that worked on record but further than just being able to hear on big speakers, it worked on a record that you knew was going to come out of a radio.
What was it like working with a producer the caliber of Mutt Lange?
It was great. Working with Mutt I learned so much from him. It wasn’t so much about how to capture sounds. It was more about how to deal with the sessions, how to deal with the people and how to treat musicians. And almost how to request the sound that you wanted to get the result that you had in your head.
As an engineer how do you go about your approach in capturing guitar sounds in the studio?
It comes down to the guitar player really. My first question to a guitar player is always, ‘is that the sound you want?’ There have been times when somebody has come into the studio and they’d say to me, ‘I am hoping you can get me an Angus Young guitar sound’. And the answer to that is, ‘well we’re going to need a Gibson SG, a Marshall and we’re going to need Angus!’ A guitar player’s guitar sound comes from the player and that’s the place to start. To illustrate my point, when I was working with Testament on The Ritual  and working on getting Eric’s [Peterson] guitar sound, he’d been never particularly happy with his guitar sound. He had this massive set up with all these pedals and stuff and yet it was a very small sound he was getting out of it all. So I suggested that we start from the beginning, take everything out and just plug his guitar straight into the amp and see how it was from there. And when we did, he went, ‘Oh that’s a lot closer to the sound I want’. And it turned out that he had got this pedal board that he was using where the sound was going from amp to pedal and pedal to amp and so on and so on, so he was loosing something as much as he gained from each pedal he was adding to the chain. So getting the sound in the studio starts way before that, it starts in the preproduction room.
How important is the mic’ing part of things in the overall capturing of the guitar tone?
Once you have got the sound coming out of the amp that the guitar player wants, the next thing you need to do is to put it into the part of the room that is going to enhance that sound. For example, if you stick that facing into a corner of a room, that sound is going to change and the capacity to capture that sound might be entirely compromised. So you need to choose a place in the room where the sound is going to come out of the amp and allow it to develop to be what it is. Then the choice of microphones is the next important step. I am unusual in the fact that though I know a lot of engineers like using dynamic microphones like SM-57s, I prefer instead all condenser microphones. My preferred microphones are Neumann U-67, because I want to capture a lot of the sounds, not just one component of it, and so if you’ve got the sound on the amp right, then that will help. And everybody assumes too that it is necessary to crank an amp up to the point where it makes your ears bleed. But you don’t really need to do that because microphones are extremely sensitive pieces of equipment. As long as you get the thing fired up so that it is pumping nicely, then the microphone is going help you do that. I use two microphones, preferably on different speakers, because then this allows me to spread the sound in the mix.
Looking back over your entire career, who have been some of the best bands you’ve worked with in the studio?
Working with Motorhead was great, that was always going to be an interesting combination with Lemmy and Robbo [Brian Robertson]. I think Lemmy is one of the best lyricists around, and an incredible character. With Lemmy, what you see is what you get. He does what he does and he does it better than anyone else. With him it’s almost like you’re trying to capture a personality. If there were any difficulties with that album [Another Perfect Day, 1983] it was because Robbo also had this vision of how he wanted to go with the music too, one that was to take it and make it slightly more melodic, but without loosing the power and sheer brute force of the music. And I think we kind of got a long way down the line with that. Certainly after we finished the album Lemmy was very pleased with it, but he was a little less so when some of the fans didn’t quite get it. Doing Back In Black was one of the most happiest experiences for me too, which was ironic since it was a sad album to be making without Bon. But it was a fantastic experience just because everyone was so focused. Making albums in any genre, has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time and lots of things coming together in the right way.
And who have been some of the worst you’ve worked with?
The worst recording experience in my entire life and that I ever worked on was the Celtic Frost record Cold Lake . It was total hell and I hated every moment of it. It was not worth anything really, the main guy in the band didn’t really want to make the album and so he made it worse by being obstructive and ridiculous and treating his musicians like shit. It was an absolutely horrendous experience.
What piece of technology do you think has been the most detrimental in the evolution of the recording realm?
It would be the digital guitar tuner. When I first started, there were no guitar tuners, guitarists would tune to the piano, as the piano was always in tune in the studio. And so the guitar players always had the capacity to hold a guitar in tune. If they heard a string going out, they’d pull it a little bit to bring it back in. So things weren’t absolutely perfectly in tune but there wasn’t this focus of attention on the tuning so much. People were focusing on getting the feel right and getting it to where it was exciting. Now what happens is one string goes out of tune, everything stops, guitarist plugs into his tuner, tune’s his guitar and then starts off again, but it has broken the momentum of the session so much. And again what happens is we have this overabundance of guitar players who have this overriding reliance on this piece of technology. They’re not thinking of tuning in their head, they’re not hearing the tuning in there, they’re looking at it, on the scale on the tuner.
In the current crop of bands that are on the scene and who wear their classic rock influences proudly on their sleeves, who are some of your favorites?
With the kind of bands that are coming out now, a lot of these bands I don’t see to many of them today making classic albums that might be relevant in fifteen or twenty years time. I think the main reason for that are the reference points of these bands. Bands like Led Zeppelin, The Stones, AC/DC, all these bands, they all had their reference points that went back to the early blues, in the real kind of basis for that kind of music. And they took those reference points and though may have ripped off a couple things they took those and put it into the melting pot. And they came out with something that was their own. They put their own stamp on it which made it original. And they took that forward and developed their own originality from that. I see too many young bands today just simply taking their reference points and trying to copy them, and so they’re not bringing their own part to that. The bands that I get excited about are bands that you can hear their influences, but you can also hear always what they’ve put into it. Bands like Raconteurs and a great band I discovered on Last FM called Band Of Skulls and Black Keys – love their latest album – it’s their best yet.
What are some of your current projects you’re working on?
At the end of last year I finished up an album with a really cool indie band called These Furrows. The main guy lead singer in the band Darryl Reid, his brother Frank Benbini is the drummer in Fun Lovin’ Criminals. These Furrows have great songs, and a good attitude. This year I did some mixing for a guy called Geoff Knoop who has a band called Love Not Dead from San Francisco. He cut a track with Prairie Prince on drums, so I have been doing some long distance mixing of his track. And I have also done a bit of jazz. I formed a label with a friend of mine, Adam Sieff called Jazzlotion. It’s about recording straight to stereo on 1/2 inch analog. We’ve had our first release recently and we’re not doing albums, we’re doing just four track EPs at the moment.
Interview by Joe Matera
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