The Bill Price Interview

Part 1 The Clash, AIR Studios The Decca Years And more...Though less familiar in America, Bill Price is a well-known and widely respected name on the
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Part 1The Clash, AIR Studios The Decca Years And more...

Though less familiar in America, Bill Price is a well-known and widely respected name on the English recording scene; few engineers have amassed a more varied - or more stellar - list of credits. Fast at "getting a sound," unfailingly polite and a living embodiment of the can-do, nothing-is-too-much-trouble work ethic, Price is the consummate engineer. Producers prize his unruffled efficiency and almost inhuman stamina, while his technical expertise is broad enough that he can finesse almost any equipment malfunction. His own mixes leap out of the speakers, and other engineers who work on Price's tapes find them faultless. And a highly developed instinct for control room diplomacy has put him in high demand as a producer.

As a staff engineer at Decca's West Hampstead studios in the mid-'60s, Price recorded a string of worldwide hits for Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, and has been consistently associated with quality recordings and commercial success ever since. Tapped by George Martin and his partners for the position of chief engineer at the new AIR Studios facility in London's West End, Price went on to revive Wessex Studios in the mid-'70s and recorded several of the most influential records of the decade, including albums by the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Pretenders. In the '80s, Price worked with Pete Townshend, Elton John, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Big Audio Dynamite, among others, and the '90s found him producing The Waterboys and mixing for the Stone Roses, The Cult, Robert Plant and Guns N' Roses.

Despite his extraordinary success, Price has rarely been interviewed. However, a series of e-mails (including a draft of the interview questions - Price is never unprepared) finally resulted in a long phone conversation in late June, soon after Price had returned from attending the Glastonbury Festival near his home in England's West Country.

Let's start with some questions about The Clash - you recently remastered the entire catalog. Why did the label decide to remaster the whole catalog when these albums are already available on CD?

That's a question that would be best asked of Sony. I had been working with them on the live album, and the available CDs were a pretty mixed bunch. Some were quite recent, and some had been done very many years ago. I checked out all the available CDs and, if nothing else, there's a 15dB variation in the peak level between the different albums. Also, there were some songs in The Clash repertoire that had not actually appeared on CD, and there were some confusing overlaps where the English and American vinyl versions and the CDs were different. I think they just decided now was a good time.

Where was the remastering done?

It was all done at Sony's studio in Whitfield Street with Ray Staff and Bob Whitney, Sony's in-house engineers. What can I say about it? I was trying to be reasonably quick. In the old days of stuff being cut onto vinyl, sometimes you might say that the finer detail and nuances of the music were lost. But I would suggest that with a band like The Clash, the final result wasn't the master tape but the actual vinyl, the cut that was pressed and everybody heard locked in their bedrooms. So when I was asked to do it, I was firmly of the opinion that the important thing to do with the CD was to match the vinyl. I decided that what we really needed to do for the sake of old Clash fans that no longer had a record player and wanted to relive the late '70s/early '80s, was that they should be able to put on a CD that sounded just like their record did. I agree that sometimes remastering might unearth subtleties that had been lost on vinyl, but I didn't think that particularly applied to The Clash records. We had quite a hard job matching the vinyl.

I've got an interesting story for your readers. It's actually quite a cautionary one. We managed to find most of the original masters - every Clash record was recorded on analog, although occasionally the only tape that Sony New York found was a digital safety copy, but we finally got all the tapes together. Of course, being late '70s/early '80s tapes, they required baking, which was no problem. Whitfield Street's equipped with this laboratory oven that you can program how long it's going to take to heat up and what temperature it's going to get to and how long it's going to take to cool. We baked them very successfully, only to find that whenever a song had been leadered, the first second or two of the song had a series of short dropouts in it.

And to cut a long story short, this turned out to be due to what they used to call "timing leader." It has a little arrow printed on it every half a second so that you could work out how much leader was three seconds' worth by counting the arrows. Unfortunately, when this was baked, the ink on the leader sort of bonded itself to the oxide of the tape that was on the outside of the leader. When the tape was played through, it pulled the oxide off, which was most unfortunate. So anybody who's investigating tapes of this vintage that need baking would be very wise to spool the tapes first and check to make sure that there's nothing printed on the leader. There were also some leaders which had AGFA printed on them throughout their entire length, and they also produced a few dropouts.

Is there a sonic difference between the arrow-shaped dropouts and the AGFA-shaped dropouts?

Yeah, one goes [thumping noise] and the other goes [trilling noise]. [Laughs.] Quite a mess, really. What we then had to do, which was incredibly boring, was to spool through the tapes before we baked them and change all the leaders if they had anything printed on them. The first album that we had this problem on was Sandinista, which I had done myself. Luckily enough, I happened to have in my loft 15 ips playback copies of the entire album, so I was able to edit those bits in, which we did digitally, obviously. My copies were first-generation, one-to-one copies of the masters, so they edited in fine.

So at some point, you converted to digital and did the album assembly in a workstation.

Having baked the tapes, we spooled them through on a Studer A80, which as you well know has got a very gentle transport, holding a piece of that special cleaning tape over the tape to get any guff off, between finger and thumb, slowly watching it go through. And then we mastered it off an Ampex ATR-100. We didn't go through any desk or anything. We patched the Ampex ATR-100 straight into a Focusrite Blue EQ and that was then fed into a Focusrite A to D converter. That, in turn, went to a TC Electronic three-band compressor/EQ mastering gizmo box. Then that went to Sonic Solution's DSP system. So that was the actual cutting/mastering chain. A majority of the sound tweaking was done on the Focusrite EQ and obviously the level changes, but then we had to match it with the vinyl. Luckily, I had original pressings of all The Clash albums, both the ones I did and the other ones, which I liked, in my cupboard. We played the vinyl, on the Neumann lathe, which we calibrated, and we could see the difference between the master tape and the original vinyl. So that's where we got our EQs from, just by listening, mainly.

What you were trying to do was make the master tapes sound like the vinyl?

Yeah. It sounds simple, but a few little things popped up. For instance, where the master had been brightened up for the vinyl, it was pretty easy to establish an EQ to brighten up the guitars and the drums, but then we'd notice that the vocal would get very sibilant, whereas on the vinyl it wasn't. This was easily explained by the fact that when the vinyl had been mastered on a Neumann lathe, the acceleration limiter had kicked in on the vocal sibilance and knocked the sibilance off without actually taking the top off the guitars and drums. We managed to find a setting on the TC which simulated the Neumann acceleration limiter in the lathe and acted as a sort of de-esser. There's a few other things that were really interesting in the vinyl. Particularly on the more punk songs, where the bass guitar was throbbing eight in a bar, the bass just seemed to hum off the vinyl, whereas it didn't from the tape. I really don't know what it was, but the bottom end of the vinyl just really hummed. We had to do a little bit of work on the bass end one way or another, just to get the same effect as the disc. I don't know if it was a mechanical-resonance thing going on with the vinyl, but we had to add something that hadn't been there on the tape.

Revisiting this material, what's your perception of the music? Has it stood the test of time?

It amazed me, the dates on the boxes. I'd forgotten how far ahead of its time it was. To be honest, I was astounded by lots of things. I was really impressed by the very original Mickey Foote Clash recordings, which I think were engineered by Simon Humphries. I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure it was Simon Humphries, actually at CBS in Whitfield Street. That was the very first stuff The Clash did.

[Editor's note: For more on Price's work with The Clash, see next issue's discussion of "London Calling" in our Classic Tracks column.]

EARLY DAYS AT DECCAI know you worked for an electronics company before you got into recording. Have you been able to use that background to save or at least streamline a session? Any amusing stories?

I used to work for the Plessey company, working on guided missiles, of all things. I got a bit bored with that. When I'd got my qualification from them, I left and started working at Decca. It was very handy to have some electronics background because, in the '60s, the ethos of Decca Studios was very much that engineers were expected to be just that - engineers. The maintenance department was always very much of the 9-to-5, bring-it-up-to-the-workshop-if-it's-not-working variety. It was quite normal for the engineer to be groveling in the back of a valve desk, changing ECC83s, while 25 valve mics were frying gently over a 60-piece orchestra. That's what people expected. Interestingly enough, when transistor mics were introduced, it took me a few years to appreciate what we were losing by ditching the valve mics, such was the relief that we no longer had to keep hunting for the valve mic with the intermittent crackle.

Which would reoccur on a regular basis?

Particularly if you had 25 of them going at once. You could spend quite a long time figuring out which one it was. If you had a crackling sort of noise going on, you'd be reaching for the panpots, trying to pan it around and find out which mic was doing it, while the string section were shouting at each other and making a lot of noise. It was a great relief when the transistor mics first came in.

But to answer your question, there's nothing intrinsically amusing about electronic repair, nothing at all. If you know a bit about electronics, it's not difficult. The hardest part is to carry it out whilst you're convincing the artist and the client that it's "just routine. Everything's going to be okay very soon." That's the hardest one.

When you started as a staff engineer at Decca, pop records not made by self-contained groups were often recorded with session orchestras. Is that a style of music and/or recording that you remember with any fondness?

When I started in '62, blues and soul music were penetrating England, or just about. Those pop records might have had orchestras, but the rhythm section contained people like Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, John McLaughlin, Herbie Flowers, Clem Cattini - guys that ignored the charts in front of them and played like they were in a rock band anyway. So it was still like working with a band, even in 1962. The only difference was that everything was done live. I don't know if you've ever seen a '60s desk. I know a few people have got them lying around in Los Angeles, but I don't know if you've noticed that they're a few inches higher than today's average SSL. Have you noticed that?

No, I haven't. Why was that?

Measure a few. You'll find that they were definitely higher in those days. I think it's purely that when you're doing a big session straight onto 4-track, it's not something you could do sitting down. It wasn't a leisurely process. You would definitely be on the balls of your feet at all times whilst recording. Not sitting back in a comfy armchair.

INTO THE WILD WEST ENDDid you have any hesitation in leaving Decca for AIR?

Wild horses wouldn't have stopped me going to AIR. A bit of history - AIR Productions, Ltd., was George Martin, Ron Richards, John Burgess and Peter Sullivan as four independent producers. The first three were employed by EMI. Peter Sullivan, the fourth, was employed by Decca, and I was Peter Sullivan's engineer. They all formed a company and went freelance, but carried on contracts with EMI and Decca respectively for several years in order to get the finances together to build the studio. This was the dream of these four producers, to build a studio, that I had been aware of for many years before it finally came to fruition. When eventually they started building the studio, I gave in my notice at Decca, and I joined the technical team that George had found from EMI, Keith Slaughter and Dave Harries. I was one of the launch team that put together AIR Studios in 1970.

Were you involved in the score for Live and Let Die?

Absolutely. George Martin wrote the score for it and produced and conducted it in AIR Studio One. Paul McCartney did the main title music, which Wings played live with the orchestra. That was a session and a half, I tell you.

I did a certain amount of film work at AIR in the early '70s, when AIR was very keen to branch out into the film business. Studio One was heavily equipped with the film technology of the time, which, unfortunately, was optical projectors and Albrecht 3-track recorders. That old technology required an army of skilled projectionists. What you'd do is use one set of tape machines for a take of a scene in the movie, whilst the other half of the crew were setting up a completely different set of tape machines for the next scene. Because it used to take so long to load them and cue them and everything, the session would take forever if you didn't double up. Most of these skilled people had to be hired in - they weren't on the AIR staff - and the combination of their unfamiliarity with the equipment and with each other obviously meant there were a few mistakes, so things didn't go too well on some of those film sessions.

George Martin wanted me to do some of the film scores. The thing is, it was quite a few years since I'd recorded a big orchestra straight to stereo and I refused to relinquish the control that I had with 16-track. Unfortunately, we didn't have time code in the UK at that time, but Dave Harries, who was the chief technical engineer, produced this little box. What it did was to start the 3M 16-track recorder, which had a sticky-tape mark on the tape positioned over the record head, at the same time as the projector. It was a pretty simple system. It took no account of the different run-up speeds of the two machines, but they were mains-synchronous, so on the principle of all things being equal, when you came to play the tape back, you positioned the mark on the playback head, and it played back in sync. Unfortunately, the film editors who were at the studio at the same time as the scoring were absolutely horrified. They didn't think the system would work and went around heavily inspecting my ACTT membership card, which is the film union. In fact, on one occasion, they even insisted on running a 3-track as well. But it worked. It probably wasn't in sync to the two frames you need for dialog, but it was close enough for music cues in film. Quite often the timing of a music cue is a matter of taste. You don't actually want the squealing trumpets to start at exactly the same time as the face appears at the window. Sometimes you might want it a little before, a little after, whatever.

I know you worked on the Nilsson Schmilsson album with Richard Perry. Did you mix that album?

I couldn't tell you. It was one of the craziest albums. It was before synchronizers, and the big song we worked on was "Without You." That had one 24-track that had rhythm section and brass on it and another 24-track that had strings on it. And a third 24-track that had Harry's vocals on it. I remember we did the vocal for "Without You," and all the harmonies in Studio 3. [AIR Studio 3 was a remix room, but was linked to a small overdub room that was shared with Studio 2.] Remember, the vocal booth was separated by a corridor, so Harry used to spend quite a lot of his time in that little room on the other side of the corridor, and quite often, the microphone would be turned off and we'd be doing something else. We wouldn't see Harry for hours. He'd just be asleep in that little funny room across the corridor. He'd done a vocal two hours ago and nobody'd thought to speak to him. Good chap, though, Harry Nilsson.

That was just one of the craziest projects. I did loads of strings, vocals and Robin Cable did a lot on it, at Trident and at AIR, I think. I did mixes on it, I did this, that and the other, but I never put an album together. I don't know when the album was put together and what I'd done on what.

The other great mystery, of course, is who did what on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols?You and Chris Thomas wound up with a joint credit, without it ever being clear who did what.

That's absolutely true. It was totally down to [the group's manager] Malcolm McLaren. The simple facts of the matter were that Chris was hired by Malcolm to do a series of singles for the Sex Pistols. I was hired by Malcolm to do a series of album tracks with the Sex Pistols. Life got slightly complicated, because I did a few album tracks that Chris remade as singles. Also, Chris started a couple of tracks, which got abandoned as singles, which I remade to be used as album tracks. On quite a large number of songs, when we'd finished the album, we had two versions of the song. We went to the cutting room at least three times with different running orders. I couldn't quite understand why Malcolm kept chopping and changing between different versions of different songs. It slowly dawned on Chris and myself that Malcolm was trying to slip between two stools and not pay Chris or me. So we said, "I'll tell you what, Malcolm. Whatever's on the Sex Pistols' album, it was either done by me or Chris, and you can pay us and we'll divvy it out amongst our little selves." Which is what we did. But it did force that very strange credit, simply because the sleeve was printed long before it was finally decided which version of each individual song was on the record. If we'd known, it would have said "produced by Bill Price" or "produced by Chris Thomas." That's how you ended up with that credit, "produced by Bill Price or Chris Thomas." [Laughs.]

You recorded the Sex Pistols at Wessex Studios, which was very much your studio. You redesigned most of it at some time or another and did the bulk of the engineering work there for a significant period. Can you tell us something about its history?

Wessex was actually built by the Thompson family, who used to have a studio in Bournemouth, which was in [the Ancient English county of] Wessex. That's where the name came from. It was subsequently taken over by Les Reed, the writer of Tom Jones' "Green Grass of Home." The studio had been designed to cope with the pop records of the '60s, 4-track live sessions, possibly with rhythm sections, strings, brass, woodwind, choir, like a Tom Jones' record. So it was a large, dead room. We used to talk about something called "separation" in those days, when we had to record all of these things at once. By 1975, with the development of 16-track, those sort of pop sessions weren't done live. Although Mr. Thompson's son Robbin actually engineered the first two King Crimson albums at Wessex, so the seeds were sown for it being a rock studio. I had worked at AIR London from 1970, and by 1975 I was chief engineer. In that year, Chrysalis had bought both AIR and Wessex studios.

Separately? They weren't connected?

They were in no way connected. Chrysalis decided, "Let's go out and buy some studios." So they bought quite a lot. Wessex was a bit in the doldrums and about a year after they'd purchased it, the managing director of Chrysalis, Terry Connally, gave me the chance to turn it around and become studio manager. So I moved over to that from AIR, because it was a good opportunity to see what I could do.

But because the Thompson family had converted it - pretty much themselves - on a small budget in the '60s, it wasn't really what you'd consider up-to-date soundproofing. This meant that when they were recording bands, they had to stop recording at 10:30 - which is, back in the '70s, about when bands got going - because the neighbors used to complain. It also meant that you couldn't record strings in the rain because of the pounding on the roof. That was one of the major things. We hired the great Ken Shearer . . .

Who had designed AIR.

Indeed. He was the original acoustic architect of Britain, if not the world. He designed a heavy concrete ceiling to go under the pitched Victorian roof, which is what was so leaky, soundwise. And this did the trick with the neighbors. But, unfortunately, it reduced the actual volume of the room by about 30 percent, which didn't do much for the string sound. So we got Keith Slaughter, who used to be manager of AIR Studios, to re-jig the acoustic treatment. He managed to recover most of the RT60 that we'd lost. That was the main structural job we did on Wessex.

You wore two hats at Wessex - chief engineer and studio manager. How did the two roles complement each other and when did they conflict?

Originally, when I took over at Wessex, they had a staff of engineers, which included Mike Thompson and Tim Friese-Green. Later in Wessex's history, we had Gary Edwards and Jon Walls from AIR, Jeremy Green, Jeremy Alom, Mike Shipley, Mark Freeguard, Kevin Matthews and Stuart Storeman. Bookings were very good. But as the decade progressed, it became the era of the freelance engineer. It was very hard to get a band to work with a house engineer when they could go and hire their own. We had great difficulty attracting freelance engineers to Wessex, and I couldn't quite understand why. So I had to act as a studio manager and hang about, lurking in the doorway on a few freelance engineers' sessions. It didn't take me long to discover what the problem was; it was the Cadac desks. Have you ever come across them?

I know you had them. The problem was that they were unfamiliar?

Yeah. I think Clive Green's desks are the cleanest, best-sounding signal chain that's ever been built. I don't think they've been topped yet for actual sonic quality. But they were like no other desks in the world. Clive had a totally eclectic approach to layout and routing and logic and that sort of thing. The Cadacs bristled with several hundred miniature toggle switches, a random number of which were capable of producing totally silent loudspeakers. It was really very embarrassing. I was looking in to the control room, which was silent apart from the clicking of VU meters on their pegs, and there's a freelance engineer in there groping for the right toggle switch. But he's got to save face, and he's not going to ask this smirking Wessex tape op in the corner of the room how to get out of the problem.

So it was really as simple as that, because when you're a freelance engineer, you've got to look like you do know what you're doing in front of the client. To turn round to the tape op and say, "Excuse me, I don't seem to be able to get any sound out of the desk..." People just did not like to do that. That was what was stopping them. So I knew that we just had to get an SSL in there.

And that's what you did?

In 1984, I think, give or take a year. And that was very successful. For quite some period after that we were literally booked 24 hours a day. The mix room was upgraded with an SSL a couple of years later.

We managed to get an interview with Chris Thomas last year [see Mix, January 1999], and Blair Jackson asked him a question about using a P.A. in Wessex, and he said, "Yeah, I had to do that because I wanted to get a live sound and they wouldn't let me pull up the carpet. So I brought in a P.A. and put the drums through it." That was presumably on sessions that you were engineering for The Pretenders.

There was quite a movement towards that. Wessex was a large, dead room. One of the things was that, because it had been a church hall, it was, for a young band doing gigs around the country in church halls, a very familiar acoustic. You could actually set a band up at one end of Wessex and it would sound very like the band on their previous gig wherever they'd been playing around the country. It somehow seemed to make the bands very comfortable. We did have a phase, which Chris instigated, where rather than screening them all off and giving them headphones, we set them up a little bit more like they would be set up onstage and put the vocals through a P.A. so everybody could hear without having to wear cans. It was to do with getting a vibe for the band, as well as livening up a carpeted room. Again, because it was a fairly dead room, suited for '60s live recording, you could get away with setting the band up in that way and not screening them off in different booths. You could get reasonably good separation between them. So it worked quite well.

Because you entered the business in the early '60s, you were a witness to the transition from live mixing to mono to multitrack recording and the much more complex and time-consuming mixing process that it necessitates. Are there any direct-to-tape mixes that you can think of that are better than painstaking mixdowns of comparable material?

I can't answer that question. Even when we used to go straight to mono, we always wanted more control. We used to run two mono tape machines at Decca, and if there was something like a guitar that we didn't think was very good, we could stop it going to machine B and get the guitarist to overdub it by doing a mono-to-mono copy. [Laughs.] So from when I started, I've always wanted more control over everything. I guess you could say now, what with Pro Tools and everything, we have absolute total control. I don't know whether the results are superior or not. Sometimes fate just took the upper hand and you got happy accidents. You can't have a happy accident now. That's the downside, really. You've got so much control it's hard to get flukes.

Next month: Price talks about Guns N' Roses, the Sex Pistols, Elton John and Pete Townshend.