Nashville Skyline

Most people reading Mix will probably know of Tony Brown as one of Nashville's most influential music industry execs and producer heavyweights.

Most people reading Mix will probably know of Tony Brown asone of Nashville's most influential music industry execs and producerheavyweights. Beginning with his career as keyboardist for ElvisPresley and Emmylou Harris, through his years making MCA Nashville oneof the most successful imprints of any genre in the world, to hiscurrent position as senior partner at Universal South (a joint venturebetween Brown and highly respected former president of AristaNashville, Tim DuBois, and Universal Records in New York), Brown hasalways displayed an uncanny instinct for great music and artistry.Since the early '80s, Brown has been credited with producing orco-producing almost 150 albums (ranging from Gold toseptuple-Platinum), as well as almost 100 Number One singles.

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

On April 11, 2003, as Brown was leaving a dinner with producer GarthFundis at the Casa Del Mar, he slipped and fell on the marblestaircase, resulting in a life-threatening head injury. During the pastfive months, Brown has undergone a stunning recovery that is nothingless than miraculous. When I heard that Brown had returned to work andwas beginning production on female singer Amanda Wilkinson, I poppedover at Starstruck and had a late-morning visit to catch up and listento his latest new project.

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

You are currently producing Amanda Wilkinson, who is part of thefamily trio The Wilkinsons, at Starstruck.
Everybody is really excited about her. She's really been great. She's21 years old. It is the first thing that she has done outside of herfamily. I love her voice. She has great chops, but I wanted to makesure 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 songswhere she could actually go to that place and sing soft and still havethe emotion. We've cut five sides on her so far.

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

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

John Guess was the engineer for this project, and we recorded it ProTools|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. Iliked RADAR better, but now I like Pro Tools as much as RADAR. It hasthe same head room as RADAR. To me, Nuendo is also as good-sounding asPro Tools|HD.

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

You know, I don't think that when I first heard “Honky TonkWoman” by the Rolling Stones, or The Beatles, I sat there andthought what I liked about those records was just the tape compressionand what George Martin did with those Beatles records. I think what weliked most about those records were the songs and the performances ofThe 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 easierin sessions, especially with those engineers who are really savvy andon the cutting edge of technology. In the end, it just makes it easierfor the artist; there is no rewind time. All that down time thatusually just bogged down a session is gone.

That said, the whole issue of delivery and archiving recordingshas taken on a new dimension with all of the various digital formatsand software that have been implemented in music-making.
During the '80s, when [Jimmy] Bowen was at MCA, there was this mandateto record on digital 3M, which was like a VHS tape. There aren't reallymany of those machines around in Nashville anymore. And the ones thatare around, how many of them even work? The frustrating thing is thatlot of great records — George Strait and Hank Williams Jr., someof the greatest music Bowen ever did in Nashville — were done onthose machines. That is one of the things we have discussed at theAcademy when they were making these recommendations for delivery. Butit's funny, because this discussion keeps going in circles. Nobody canmake a finite decision necessarily. The delivery of records to recordlabels today is so complicated. What would be considered a no-no 20years ago happens all of the time, just because people that are gettingdelivery of the music to the labels don't even know that some engineerhas everything on his hard disk back at his house. It used to be thatyou had the master and the analog safety, and you brought both boxes tothe 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'llshoot you. [Laughs] If you want your money, give 'em to me rightnow.” And then she would open up the boxes, and if there wasn't atrack sheet, she would just give you hell. Now, most stuff is turned inand there is no documentation a lot of times. Nobody knows how to getto the source of what is there, and they don't know what format it ison.

We're going through a new period where record companies now are atthe mercy of the producer having an engineer that knows what he isdoing, and the producer also sort of having to know that the engineerknows what he is doing; the relationships have gotten more and moreimportant. Man, you think these lost tapes have shown up around theworld 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 thatit is interesting to see the recording industry try to stay up withit.

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

At studios like Starstruck and Ocean Way, there are these people whoare always around that just fix it when something happens. AtStarstruck, their mission is to make sure that if you work there, it isgoing 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 nevermade it a point of going to studios asking for deals. Jimmy Bowen sortof taught me that if we didn't support the good studios, we would losethem. I would hate to see Starstruck, Ocean Way, the Tracking Room orthe Big Boy at The Sound Kitchen go bye-bye, because all of the recordcompanies 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 tobe three times the rate of other studios, and it is not.

Universal South has been doing well for you, with the success ofJoe Nichols, Steven Delopoulos, Dean Miller, Being Strait and AllisonMoorer.
When I was president at MCA, people thought I had this little magicdust 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 dowith the artist that I had, the songs that I had and the musicians. Ihad to be in the zone in the studio.

Cutting a record is hard. Everybody thinks we are in here drinkingchampagne and yahooing, and on a couple of playbacks, sometimes you patyourself on the back and go, “I'm a genius!” [Laughs] Thetruth is that most of the time, you are thinking, “God, I hopethis is as good as I think that it is.” It is easy tosecond-guess yourself. There are those moments where you feel, “Ithink I did something really good here and only I could screw thisup.” And you know, if you have done it a lot of times, more thanlikely, you won't screw it up. And if you have a lot of great peoplewith 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 thatyou are looking for. Unless you just stumble on it, and I don't thinkthat you should go in as expensive as it is to record today and gamblelike that. You've got to be as sure as you can possibly be.

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