The Copper Interview

Tony Visconti, Part 2

[ Part 1 of John Seetoo’s interview with Tony Visconti appeared in Copper #96.]

John Seetoo: In a previous interview with mastering engineer Steve Hoffman (Copper #36 and #37), he extolled the aural virtues of analog and even cited a preference for editing analog tape vs. digital in the box. Conversely, Alan Parsons has emphatically stated that after countless hours of using razors to take out a single note on a 2” multitrack tape, he is perfectly fine never to come near tape ever again for any editing. Having produced hit records in both analog and digital, where do you see yourself between those camps?

Tony Visconti: Oh, this tricky question! The answer has changed as each decade brought innovating technical quality into the audio world. When digital recording first came out it sounded terrible. We didn’t have 6 terabyte drives back then. Computer programs were unstable and a crash could bring a session to a rapid end. It was wise not to give up your analog equipment in the early days of digital. I have mastered analog editing, even on 24-track tape (that is actually easier than editing on 2-channel tape). But Alan Parsons is right. After you redo an analog tape three times you are destroying a one-off thing, a master tape, there are no copies. What I like to do is record on analog multi-track tape, do all the right things like gently saturate the tape and as soon as a take is agreed upon as a master, it goes right into Pro Tools at a high sampling rate. I typically record at 96 kHz, 32-bit floating. That is so close to the sound of analog tape and it perfectly preserves the gently saturated sound you get from tape. I just have to state that the medium, digital or analog, will not turn your music into a hit record. Your brain has to do that and thankfully it is still an organic analog human organ.

J.S.: I’ve read some of your past interviews where you mentioned some pet peeves of yours in the recording studio, such as tempo drift and mics that overemphasized dental problems with certain  vocalists. In the current digital recording arena, are these still issues, and have new ones cropped up since that can throw cold water on the creative momentum, or at least be a constant annoyance in the studio?

T.V.: Digital recording just gets better and better. I have lovely external analog gear that colors the sound according to taste and the digital recording preserves it forever and you can make endless clones in case the hard drive crashes (which it will). Sibilance is still a major problem but it is easier to deal with in the digital world. Conversely, lisping, the opposite of sibilance, is a lot easier to deal with. There are applications to get rid of sibilance called de-essers. But I prefer to do it by hand, taking every es as a separate issue. Conversely, I take every lisped es and bring it up in volume by hand. I like to do this, but I also have some assistants who can do it quite well and give my eyes a break from staring at a screen.

I don’t see a downside to recording digitally. Let’s face it, thousands and thousands of professionals have made the switch to digital, it can’t be as bad as naysayers say it is. We all love tape recording, but the truth is no new machines have been made for decades, the ones in use are constantly being refurbished. And at this time there is only one tape manufacturer in the world. Still, when my client can afford tape I’m right there with them. I love the sound.

J.S.: Congratulations on your new solo record, It’s a Selfie. What can you tell us about it? How did it come about, and what was the process for you as the primary artist as well as the producer? What were some of the challenges for you? Did you have to take off the producer hat when cutting tracks and then put it back on for playback? Who else was involved with engineering while you were playing? The announced credits at the end for your guests was a nice touch.

T.V.: Thank you. It’s A Selfie is a result of 10 years of songwriting (there are loads of discards) I felt compelled to do. I started out as a performer and songwriter many years ago and my publisher advised me to become a record producer instead. That didn’t go too badly, right? I have been working with some very big artists in recent years, David Bowie, Damon Albarn, and Perry Farrell. They were very demanding albums I loved making, but I had to put my album on hold. I originally intended to re-record with session musicians but I tweaked the demos to a point that they sounded finished! Even if I had the time it would have been exhausting to re-record every one of the eleven songs on the album. I just mixed them as well as I could, but, you know, lots of artists today make records by themselves, so I’m not out of step. I have started the next album and before I dress up the demos too much I intend to work with other musicians this time around.

J.S.: On your song, “Hey Shout It Out”, you mention “my brothers D.B.” and “M.B.”. David Bowie and Marc Bolan? Can you tell us about that song?

T.V.: The three big influences in my recording career have been Denny Cordell (brother D.C.), Marc Bolan (brother M.B.), and David Bowie (brother D.B.). We should mention those who helped you to get where you did, helped you when you needed it, helped you through lean times, etc. I also dropped a few more names in the outro: Kristeen Young, two school teachers, Dr. Israel Silberman, and James Flanagan. When I perform this live I’m going to ask audience members to ‘shout it out.’

J.S.: In “Your Mama”, you reminisce about your family and growing up, but that you seem disconnected from those NY roots. Do you feel more at home in London rather than NY?

T.V.: Well, I loved being raised in Brooklyn, with so many different ethnic groups, exposed to so many influences at an early age. Few other cities provide those experiences. But Brooklyn was limiting in those days. The cool people lived in Greenwich Village, The West Side, and the up and coming East Village. I had to get out. I first rented an apartment on W. 88th Street and my career changed for the better. That opened more doors that eventually led to London. I still love visiting Brooklyn but the neighborhood I grew up in is completely different. I know parts of Brooklyn are considered very cool but I’m just not a Williamsburg or Greenpoint person. Even Bay Ridge and Downtown, where I grew up, are full of young Hipsters now. They own it.

London is my second city and where I actually developed as an adult. I know the streets almost as well as a taxi driver. I’m bilingual (I speak and spell London) and feel very much at home there. Some neighborhoods haven’t changed at all since the ’70s and some are very much improved. My studio on Dean Street still exists under new ownership and we are great friends. I use Dean Street studios a lot, as well as Visconti Studio in Kingston University. I’m also a member of the Groucho Club, the least snooty bar, restaurant, hotel club in London. It is very chill.

J.S.: As you hail originally from Brooklyn, what is your opinion of the Brooklyn music scene? In addition to hip-hop, there’s been alternative music from TV on the Radio and the late Sharon Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, who were one of the first to put the area on the radar. Since then, bands like Sleigh Bells, Grizzly Bear, and a slew of others have gotten international attention. Where do you see this trend heading, and why?

T.V.: I’m very impressed by Brooklyn based bands. The bands are made up from people who weren’t necessarily born there, but the recent ‘immigration’ of musicians from other cities in the USA, and even from other countries, is a great phenomenon that is undeniably healthy. I have a favorite recording studio in Brooklyn too, Atomic Sound.

J.S.: You incorporate some diverse sounds and approaches into It’s a Selfie and even do some rap on, “The Eighth Year” and “A Marriage”. Were these fresh experiments? Have you been stealthily introducing these elements into your previous projects, and if so, can you name some examples?

T.V.: I just love all kinds of music, that’s all. I try to experiment and the little bit of rapping came quite naturally. I’m even doing some Tuvan throat singing in, “Are You Awake”.  I’m a fan of Hip Hop. David Bowie and I were very taken in by Lamar’s, To Pimp A Butterfly. My sound design is always in the records I make for other artists. For myself I tried to do different things that only apply to me. I do a lot of hybridism, taking elements from unlikely styles and merging them together. There is a lot of that on It’s A Selfie. David and I would often do that together.

J.S.: Are there any musical genres in which you have yet to work where you think you would be able to bring something unique to the table from your experience?

T.V.: I’d like to do some experimental music with Classical musicians and singers. As I can write orchestrations, I’d like to use the expertise of virtuosi to express some of my music ideas beyond the world of Rock, Pop, Art Rock, genres that can only go so far. I’ve thought of writing large orchestral pieces, a symphony for instance. But it would take a lot of time off from producing to do that. It can happen!

J.S.: Are there any musical artists with whom you have never worked that you think would yield a great record from a collaboration?

T.V.: I really like PJ Harvey. She has been approached. I think I can collaborate with Paul McCartney and make a kick ass record with him.

J.S.: What is your desert island recording setup for instruments, recording format, and mics?

T.V.: As this is the last question and the most complicated to answer, I might give this one a pass. I’d have to have everything Eventide Audio makes for a start. But a desert island has to have a source of electricity, so let’s start with solar panels….

It’s A Selfie is available on Spotify.