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James Guthrie interview - Pink Floyd: The Wall Print E-mail
Written by Thomas Ulrik Larsen   
Monday, 15 July 2013

James GuthrieWith this week seeing the 2013 leg of the Roger Waters The Wall Live tour starting in the Netherlands, it seems an eminently suitable time to dive back into the world of The Wall, with this exclusive interview with James Guthrie by Thomas Ulrik Larsen. An edited translated version was printed in the Swedish monthly, MM, but with much thanks to Thomas, this is the full interview, published for the first time.

Guthrie is, of course, an English recording engineer and record producer best known for his work with Pink Floyd, serving as a producer and engineer for the band since 1978. He is the owner and operator of das boot recording in California's lovely Lake Tahoe, and he took time out to speak to Thomas about The Wall from his perspective, a couple of years ago...

How old were you when you got into engineering and producing records?

19. I started as a tape operator at Mayfair Studios in London on the 1st of October 1973. The studio was located above a small chemist’s shop in South Molton Street. There were no schools for engineering and producing in those days. It was an apprenticeship. You had to start at the bottom and work your way up. I was fortunate as they desperately needed a tape op. The maintenance guy had been filling in on sessions until they found someone new. As a result, I was on the machines on my very first evening. I think I had 2 days off in my first year. Being thrown in at the deep end is shocking, but you learn quickly! After that I moved to Audio International and during that time I began producing. I then helped build and moved to, Utopia Studios. Soon after that I went freelance and I started working with the Floyd on ‘The Wall’ in October of 1978 when I was 24.

What is your formal musical and technical background?

I played guitar in various school bands, but that had to take a back seat when I got on the ‘other side of the glass’, which was just as well really. My studio training happened ‘on the job’. The best way to learn the dynamics of a recording session are to be in it. Initially, I was trained by John Hudson. Afterwards when I moved to Audio International, I learned a great deal from Richard Millard. A great part of this job is that you are always learning. Working all the time was a great asset. You need time to experiment, to push yourself and ultimately to develop a style of your own.

How familiar was Pink Floyd to you when you were asked to work with the band?

Well, ‘See Emily Play’ was always one of my favourites. I bought the single when I was about 13 and went around playing it for all my friends saying, “You’ve got to hear this!”

I also knew ‘Piper’, ‘More’ and ‘Meddle’ pretty well. Like most people, I had probably heard ‘Dark Side’ more than any of the others. I actually became a much bigger Floyd fan by working with them. There’s an interesting recognition that happens when you finally work with an artist that you are familiar with. The first time David went out into the studio to sing (we were working on the song arrangements and making new demos), I said, “can you just sing a bit, a cappella, so I can get a rough idea of level?” He began to sing and suddenly there was that amazing, instantly recognizable voice coming out of the speakers. Oh yeah... I thought to myself as I got a chill, that voice.

The Wall began as a demo from the band’s main writer. How did you react to the demo? The Wall as a whole changed a lot during the time of recording but were there elements or characteristics that remained unchanged throughout?

Roger’s original demo was rough, but you could hear the brilliance and the importance of the story. He had written what could have been nearly 3 albums worth of material that had to be whittled down to 2. Some of that material was used on later projects, but our initial challenge was to make things more concise, to more effectively tell the story. Songs like ‘Comfortably Numb’ came later as a collaboration, but there were a number of tunes that remained relatively unchanged, such as ‘Mother’, ‘Is There Anybody Out There’, ‘Vera’, ‘Bring The Boys’, ‘Don’t Leave Me Now’ and many of the musical themes that recur throughout the album.

Unlike earlier Floyd recordings, the band didn’t perform much together and the recordings were high on overdubbing. Was that solely a technical matter or was there an artistic consideration to?

‘Animals’ was the last album where they were really playing together as a band in the studio. On ‘The Wall’, we rehearsed some of the songs in the studio as a band and indeed recorded some of the ‘new’ demos that way, but ultimately the final recording was done one man at a time. Because we were cutting to a click and ‘building’ each song from the ground up, there was less reason for everyone to be playing at the same time. A bit of that spontaneity would have been nice, but there were also personal relationships to consider. By the time we got to France, things were fairly regimented. I would work with Roger and David from 10 – 6, have dinner and then work with Rick from about 7 – 1am. Obviously, during the drum recording I worked with Nick in the daytime and then spent the evenings choosing the drum performances and editing them together. The following day I would play the edited drum track for Roger and David and Roger would say, “Great – On to the bass!”

Incidentally, I’ve been told that there are numerous sites on the internet claiming that Rick didn’t actually play on ‘The Wall’ album. He lost a lot of the recognition that he deserved because for many of those performances, no one else was in the room, so they started to believe that he hadn’t played. I want to correct that misconception and let his fans and family know that Rick played some really great keyboards on the album. Just listen to the Hammond and Rhodes on ‘Hey You’, the Wurlitzer and fuzz organ on ‘Young Lust’, all the pads and Moogs on ‘Brick 1 & 2’, the list goes on.

You ran several studios at once to meet the work schedule. How did you make sure everything fitted in the end? Who had the overview?

Making sure that all the elements of a song knit together properly, regardless of where or when they were recorded is all part of the mixing process. This is a very difficult thing to explain, but it’s the responsibility of the mixer and you just do it!

What surprised you the most during the sessions? Can you point out some of the most remarkable things you learned?

Initially, I was shocked at how slowly everything moved! I was used to working really quickly when producing and engineering albums. Suddenly it was like the brakes were on and often it was difficult to get the momentum going. Eventually, I adapted to the Floyd pace. One of the great things about working with this band is that you are allowed time to be creative, to pursue an idea even if it takes some time. The Floyd had a production deal to make their records and the record label never heard anything until it was done. The record was made purely and only by the people in the studio.

I had learned early in my career that it was a good idea to try and not be too attached to the elements in a recording. A certain amount of ruthlessness is required especially during mixing. You may have a very complex vocal section for instance that took 3 days to record. When you come to mix, you realize that it just doesn’t work in the song. There is a natural tendency to try and make it work, to try and force it. You need to be able to remove it and move on. Roger has this ability. I thought I was pretty good at doing that, but he was way ahead of me!

I have great memories of working with David on all the guitar solos. For the majority of the solos it was just David, myself and Phil Taylor in the room. We would make numerous passes, then Dave would take a break and I would combine a solo from all the different performances. He would come back, have a listen and either we would move on to the next piece, or he would have me make one or two changes and then we’d move on. As most guitarists know, David uses a lot of finger vibrato as well as the whammy bar, often at the same time. On the first solo of ‘Comfortably Numb’ he was exaggerating the effect quite dramatically. I asked if he thought it was too much and he replied, “No, I want it to sound drunk!” And there it was.

Everyone knows that David is a great soloist, but not enough is said about his accompaniment, or rhythm playing. I learned a lot about guitar arrangements from working with him on this record. Another great example of this is the ‘Animals’ album - staggering rhythm guitar parts.

We mixed the album at Producers Workshop in L.A. Their level of professionalism and technology was impressive. They had very strict requirements that the new tape had to meet and would actually listen to a portion of each blank reel before they would allow me to print a mix to it! I would arrive at 9:00am and either John or Ben had been there since 8:00am listening to tape. There would be a stack of rejected ¼” reels about waist high that were going to be sent back to the manufacturer!

What piece of equipment in use was the most unusual – hi tech or lo-fi?

I think more than unusual equipment was the use of unusual spaces. I like to record in various places other than the studio. Britannia Row had a games room on the top floor that had a great live sound to it. I put Nick up there for ‘In The Flesh’ and also used it as a live chamber for one or two other elements. I also discovered an underground tank next to the swimming pool at Superbear Studios in France, which we hung a speaker and a couple of mics in to use as a chamber.

Apart from that - perhaps the television? We recorded a lot of ‘wild’ TV onto ¼” and some of it directly to the multitrack. ‘Nobody Home’ was one take. The Gomer Pyle bit, “Surprise. Surprise, Surprise!” fell right there, perfectly after Roger’s vocal.

Another piece that worked better than expected was the telephone operator. Roger was keen to illustrate the personal disconnect of being on the road. We were in L.A. at Producer’s Workshop so I phoned my neighbour, Chris Fitzmorris in London. He had the keys to my flat and I asked him to go there and said that I would call him through an operator. “No matter how many times I call”, I said, “just pick up the phone, say ‘Hello’, let the operator speak and then hang up”. I placed a telephone in a soundproof area, got on to an extension phone and started recording to ¼” tape. It took a couple of operators – the first 2 were a bit abrupt, but the 3rd was perfect. I told her that I wanted to make a collect call to Mrs. Floyd. “Who’s calling?” she asked. “Mr. Floyd”, I replied. Chris’s timing was terrific, over and over he would hang up just at the right moment and she became genuinely concerned. “Is there supposed to be someone there besides your wife?” I was playing her along saying things like “No! I don’t know who that is!” “What’s going on?” and she would try the call again. Unwittingly, she was helping to tell the story. Afterwards I went through the ¼” and edited my voice out, just leaving her and Chris. I sometimes wonder if she ever heard herself on the record.

The Walls basic tracks were edited by you from several takes. Normal fare on today’s digital systems. But wasn’t it awfully hard back then?

Well, I had nothing to compare it to! I used to love the challenge of complicated tapes edits. It’s really pretty amazing what you can get away with. There are thousands of edits on that album, both 2” and ¼”. The mixing was all manual. No computer automation yet. So you would mix until you made a mistake, or until there was a complicated change-over and if the feel was good, you would reset and make an edit in the ¼”. During the mix, I decided that a drum fill was not working well on ‘Comfortably Numb’. We were running 2 multitrack machines for the recording, a 16track and a 24track locked together by a Maglink synchronizer (this was before SMPTE code became the standard), so cutting the tape and the timecode all the way through at this late stage was not an option. I decided to make a window edit. I had heard stories of people doing this but had never seen it. Maybe they were true, maybe just folklore. This made me even more determined to try it. I cut the top 8 tracks (the drums) out of the 16 track tape and replaced them with a different performance of Nick’s drums. It worked fine. The tape looked like a patchwork quilt, but it sounded fine!

From reading about the making of The Wall – the record as well as the live show – I get the feeling that it was a project taking shape while pushing for a new era of technology to begin. The production team seemed to be pushing the recording envelope a lot. Many producers suggest that some of the inventiveness of the analogue era went out when digital recording became the new standard. Please discuss.

I would agree. I’m very grateful to have started when I did. On ‘The Wall’ we didn’t have much in the way of outboard gear. Lots of tape delay, a couple of DDL’s, a Flanger and the 910 Harmonizer, which had not been out very long. Back then, if you heard a sound in your head, you had to be very creative to work out how you were going to manifest the effect. Now you can just call up virtually any sound on a digital box and the end result is not as satisfying. The song had better be good, because that part of the technology is not really going to impress anyone anymore.

I say “back then” but just look at what George Martin and Geoff Emerick were doing even earlier with the Beatles! They had even less. That was such a creative time and is still a great source of inspiration. I love the production on ‘I Am The Walrus’. When I eventually got to meet Geoff (actually only a few years ago) I immediately said, “I have to know, how did you get that great vocal sound on John? It sounds like a valve limiter distorting rather than the mic amp, how did you do it?!” He thought for a minute and then said something like, “I’m not sure, I really don’t remember”. Disappointment! Perhaps he just didn’t want to tell me, which is fair enough.

Creating atmospheres is very important for this band and they’ve always managed to do it with a minimum of exotic equipment. I still try to create things from scratch, rather than getting them out of a box. James Guthrie during Wall concerts

Discipline and restraint are important in the studio even if you arrive there after great recklessness. I think there is a tendency nowadays for people just starting out with DAWs to time-correct elements in the recording just because they can. Often this can be at the expense of the groove. Staring at a computer screen all day long can make some people produce records with their eyes rather than their ears. I don’t wish to be negative about new technology, just cautious. The great artists, engineers and producers will continue to surprise us with great recordings.

You worked a lot with the four Floyd members individually. Do you remember any particular musical or technical anecdotes from recording with the four? Perhaps something about their characteristics as performers and artists in the studio.

There was always a wealth of diverse talent for each band member to exploit. Whether it’s David’s musical abilities, Roger’s vision, Rick’s atmospherics, or Nick’s ability to provide precisely the right bed for the song. David tends to concentrate more on musical arrangement, Roger more on the overview – the dramatic impact. But, Roger’s musical knowledge and ability should not be underestimated. He played some great guitar on the record as well as bass. David also played some great bass as well as his guitar.

When we finished at Superbear Studios, the band took the month of August off. I flew to London with the tapes and went to my old stomping ground of Utopia Studios to rough mix everything. The plan was that I would put everything in sequence and send rough mixes to everyone so they could review the progress. I would then go straight to L.A. in order to prepare for the U.S. sessions and meet everyone there at the end of the month. During the sessions in France, we had recorded the scream that bridges ‘The Happiest Days’ with ‘Another Brick Part 2’. For some reason the scream was missing. I couldn’t find it on any of the tapes. This seemed like an important transition to me and I wanted it to be on the rough mixes. This is a scream that Roger has done for years and is performed by an inhalation of breath rather than an exhalation - difficult to do and very hard on your throat. Roger was still in the South of France and I called him there. I set up the phone recording system, explained that the scream was missing and asked if he would scream down the phone for me, so we would at least have a rough idea of it on the interim mixes. He did numerous ‘takes’ over the phone, eventually saying to me, “I can’t do this much longer, you know. My family are giving me very strange looks!” I put the scream in place and we never replaced it in the studio, so the performance on the record is phoned in, from France to the U.K.

Do you have favourite tracks from The Wall (musically or from a technical point of view)?

I like the way the whole album works, both musically and as a narrative. Brick 1 stands out to me of the 3 Bricks, as I think we managed to capture the atmosphere of youth in the 1940’s and the child reminiscing. (Each ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ originally had a subtitle rather than a number. In order, they were: ‘Reminiscing’, ‘Education’ and ‘Drugs’). On Roger’s original demo, Brick 1 was just called ‘Reminiscing’. The drones against David’s guitars, everything swirling, Rick’s sparse but emotional electric piano, all create a great musical bed for Roger’s vocal.

‘Hey You’ is another, with everyone playing beautifully, everything has its place even when the song gets busy. ‘Comfortably Numb’ as well. It was a great privilege being able to help capture those performances.

I don’t know if you ever go back and listen to your back catalogue, but what is your personal view about The Wall today? Does it hold up? Are there elements you would have tackled differently today?

When I was young, I was incredibly critical of everything, and nothing that I did, or pretty much anyone else for that matter, could ever be good enough. Over the years I have tried to temper that reaction, but I’m still a perfectionist. It’s funny, I’ve recently been going through ‘The Wall’ multitrack tapes in order to make some transfers and looking back, I thought to myself, actually, this is pretty good! I’m probably too close to it to judge effectively, but I think it holds up today because the material is so strong. Approaching it today, I would probably push for more rehearsal time and try to cut more of the songs as a band. Also, I wouldn’t mind hearing ‘The Trial’ without all the showy, Kurt Weill arrangement. Something darker, cooler and more sinister might be interesting.

Since the Wall-line up of Pink Floyd dissolved you have worked with the factions of the band on many occasions. Is there, in your view, a musical strain, certain sound characteristics or production values that runs through everything, no matter which of the former members you happen to be involved with?

I think they are musically all a bit different, but together they made that sound. By definition, the solo albums all explore more personal avenues, but having said that, I think that Roger’s solo album, ‘Amused to Death’ is very much a ‘Pink Floyd’ record, both atmospherically and conceptually. The writing always contains such richly compelling subject matter which is very inspiring from a production point of view. Really, it’s a producer/engineer’s dream, as there’s always so much to explore creatively.

Our thanks to Thomas Ulrik Larsen for sending us the whole interview to use exclusively on Brain Damage. The above text is copyright Thomas, and not to be used without his express permission.

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