Nashville Skyline

Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Rick Clark

Polls


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Most people reading Mix will probably know of Tony Brown as one of Nashville's most influential music industry execs and producer heavyweights. Beginning with his career as keyboardist for Elvis Presley and Emmylou Harris, through his years making MCA Nashville one of the most successful imprints of any genre in the world, to his current position as senior partner at Universal South (a joint venture between Brown and highly respected former president of Arista Nashville, Tim DuBois, and Universal Records in New York), Brown has always displayed an uncanny instinct for great music and artistry. Since the early '80s, Brown has been credited with producing or co-producing almost 150 albums (ranging from Gold to septuple-Platinum), as well as almost 100 Number One singles.

One of the things that enabled Brown to succeed is that he has always been a rather down to earth, approachable guy with a good sense of humor who has treated people with respect and a sense of fairness.

On April 11, 2003, as Brown was leaving a dinner with producer Garth Fundis at the Casa Del Mar, he slipped and fell on the marble staircase, resulting in a life-threatening head injury. During the past five months, Brown has undergone a stunning recovery that is nothing less than miraculous. When I heard that Brown had returned to work and was beginning production on female singer Amanda Wilkinson, I popped over at Starstruck and had a late-morning visit to catch up and listen to his latest new project.

It's good to see you back. You have been in a lot of people's thoughts and prayers.
I really appreciate it. I think that is the thing that got me squared-away again. Even the doctors said that there was only so much that they could do. I could not believe all of the people who called me and wrote all these notes and cards. It makes you feel glad that you treat people as right as possible.

You are currently producing Amanda Wilkinson, who is part of the family trio The Wilkinsons, at Starstruck.
Everybody is really excited about her. She's really been great. She's 21 years old. It is the first thing that she has done outside of her family. I love her voice. She has great chops, but I wanted to make sure that we didn't try to go to a place where we were tempted to “show-pony” her voice. I also wanted to give her songs where she could actually go to that place and sing soft and still have the emotion. We've cut five sides on her so far.

I wanted to work here at Starstruck for two reasons: It's a great studio and I wanted to be in the building. I like to have the heads of the label come just an elevator trip down and have them feel as though they have some ownership of the project, because they were there when we were cutting.

I've found that people are always going to offer their input — whether you want it or not — because everybody, once the record is finished, becomes an A&R person. You might as well go ahead and let them buy into the project early. Sometimes, they say things that you should take to heart and you can actually turn the ship one way or another, if it is early on. I thought it was a pro-active thing on our part, and Amanda was happy to do it. Personally, I think that they will like what we've done because she is a great singer.

John Guess was the engineer for this project, and we recorded it Pro Tools|HD. Up until HD, I sort of fought against the idea of Pro Tools. For one thing, I didn't think it sounded as good as 48-track digital. I liked RADAR better, but now I like Pro Tools as much as RADAR. It has the same head room as RADAR. To me, Nuendo is also as good-sounding as Pro Tools|HD.

Ultimately, it's about the performance of the artist, the track and the song. If you captured the performance on any format, it can be great, until you start to study sonically what is happening and then maybe you go, “Oh, I just wish it had just a little more analog tape compression on it.” [Laughs]

You know, I don't think that when I first heard “Honky Tonk Woman” by the Rolling Stones, or The Beatles, I sat there and thought what I liked about those records was just the tape compression and what George Martin did with those Beatles records. I think what we liked most about those records were the songs and the performances of The Beatles and the Stones. That is where all of this goes back to.

I think with these new formats, things go so much faster and easier in sessions, especially with those engineers who are really savvy and on the cutting edge of technology. In the end, it just makes it easier for the artist; there is no rewind time. All that down time that usually just bogged down a session is gone.

That said, the whole issue of delivery and archiving recordings has taken on a new dimension with all of the various digital formats and software that have been implemented in music-making.
During the '80s, when [Jimmy] Bowen was at MCA, there was this mandate to record on digital 3M, which was like a VHS tape. There aren't really many of those machines around in Nashville anymore. And the ones that are around, how many of them even work? The frustrating thing is that lot of great records — George Strait and Hank Williams Jr., some of the greatest music Bowen ever did in Nashville — were done on those machines. That is one of the things we have discussed at the Academy when they were making these recommendations for delivery. But it's funny, because this discussion keeps going in circles. Nobody can make a finite decision necessarily. The delivery of records to record labels today is so complicated. What would be considered a no-no 20 years ago happens all of the time, just because people that are getting delivery of the music to the labels don't even know that some engineer has everything on his hard disk back at his house. It used to be that you had the master and the analog safety, and you brought both boxes to the label.

There used to a lady named Dot at RCA who was there with a 9mm [gun] and she would say, “Give me both of those damn boxes or I'll shoot you. [Laughs] If you want your money, give 'em to me right now.” And then she would open up the boxes, and if there wasn't a track sheet, she would just give you hell. Now, most stuff is turned in and there is no documentation a lot of times. Nobody knows how to get to the source of what is there, and they don't know what format it is on.

We're going through a new period where record companies now are at the mercy of the producer having an engineer that knows what he is doing, and the producer also sort of having to know that the engineer knows what he is doing; the relationships have gotten more and more important. Man, you think these lost tapes have shown up around the world years ago, they are going to show up a lot in the next few years. It's kind of scary, but you know that technology is moving so fast that it is interesting to see the recording industry try to stay up with it.

What is one of the most important marks of a great studio?
A good maintenance program is one of the most important things. Nothing can destroy creativity like a breakdown. It can destroy an entire project for months. In some cases, the engineer or the artist or some musicians have flown in and it was the only window they had in their schedule for the next four months, and you may never re-capture the groove you were in when something breaks down.

At studios like Starstruck and Ocean Way, there are these people who are always around that just fix it when something happens. At Starstruck, their mission is to make sure that if you work there, it is going to be a good experience, if they have anything to do with it.

I know how hard it is to keep a studio up and going. I have never made it a point of going to studios asking for deals. Jimmy Bowen sort of taught me that if we didn't support the good studios, we would lose them. I would hate to see Starstruck, Ocean Way, the Tracking Room or the Big Boy at The Sound Kitchen go bye-bye, because all of the record companies and us producers poor-mathed them to death.

I've found that most studio rates are pretty much the same. Starstruck is such a gorgeous place that you think that it is going to be three times the rate of other studios, and it is not.

Universal South has been doing well for you, with the success of Joe Nichols, Steven Delopoulos, Dean Miller, Being Strait and Allison Moorer.
When I was president at MCA, people thought I had this little magic dust that I could sprinkle on any record and it would be a hit. [Laughs] That's just not true. I could only do as well as I could do with the artist that I had, the songs that I had and the musicians. I had to be in the zone in the studio.

Cutting a record is hard. Everybody thinks we are in here drinking champagne and yahooing, and on a couple of playbacks, sometimes you pat yourself on the back and go, “I'm a genius!” [Laughs] The truth is that most of the time, you are thinking, “God, I hope this is as good as I think that it is.” It is easy to second-guess yourself. There are those moments where you feel, “I think I did something really good here and only I could screw this up.” And you know, if you have done it a lot of times, more than likely, you won't screw it up. And if you have a lot of great people with you, you are only as good as the people that you are working with. You can't use mediocrity — when it comes to musicians, engineers, songwriters and artists — and expect to get that magic thing that you are looking for. Unless you just stumble on it, and I don't think that you should go in as expensive as it is to record today and gamble like that. You've got to be as sure as you can possibly be.


Send your Nashville news to MrBlurge@mac.com.






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