PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in June 1999, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!
Robin Hood Brians is a true Texas character. His studio, Robin Hood Studios in Tyler, Texas has been kicking out some of the great music of the last half-century, and has seen countless changes since its inception in 1963.
Over the years Robin has become a kind of folk hero in Tyler, a modest celebrity whose claim to fame to some of the more non-musical locals is that he has a pizza named after him. If you’ve never heard of Robin Hood, that’s probably because, like any good Texas boy, he’s not one for tooting his own horn. He never left Tyler for Nashville, LA, or New York; preferring to remain in his home town and just make music. But Robin has left a mark on music, and is a wealth of history, insights, techniques, and down-home storytelling.
Located in the piney woods of East Texas, Robin Hood Studios is a wonderful combination of classic recording technology and modern day wizardry. This is not a multimillion-dollar showcase studio. It’s a working producer’s workshop, and it reflects decades of changes in studio design and technology.
The feel of the studio is: home. Perhaps that is because this studio is built onto the home where Robin was raised as a child. The atmosphere is comfortable and a little cluttered, and inside you are literally surrounded by unique and fascinating instruments and equipment.
The main room is a large (about 1000 square feet), high-ceilinged room that includes a priceless 9-foot Bosendorfer grand piano; a drum booth with a barrel-vault ceiling, complete with a vintage Ludwig “Ringo Starr” drum kit; a long amplifier iso room for guitars and bass including a respectable array of Fender amps and guitars; and enough overall space for bands of any size up to a small orchestra. Literally everywhere you look you will find unique sounds ready to happen: an electric sitar, an upright piano outfitted with thumbtacks on the hammers and covered with psychedelic paint, a pair of thirty-year old Fender amps diligently maintained, sitting next to an old Vox organ. The room has been tailored over forty years of use to accommodate virtually any musical act, and it enthusiastically begs the musician to grab an instrument and make some noise.
Microphones include an array of new and vintage large-diaphragm Neumann models – U67, U87, FET47; a closetful of KM86s and KM84s; scads of SM57s and SM53s; and newer models from AKG, EV, and Audio Technica. Mic preamplification is covered by forty years of mic pres, including vintage and modern tube preamps as well eight all-discrete API units.
This studio has witnessed the entire life cycle of the multitrack recorder, from mono through 2-track, 3-track, 4-track, 8-track, 24-track analog, and 24-track digital. A host of consoles has graced this facility, beginning with an all-tube console handmade in 1960 by Robin Hood and progressing through the current unit, a Mackie Digital 8-Bus console.
I’ve known Robin for a few years, and when I met him he quickly became a dear friend to me. From Robin I have learned much of what little l know about recording, and among the few people I’ve met in the “biz” Robin is the most honest and real. We spent about two hours reminiscing over his history in recording, with me asking few questions, and him doing most of the talking.
Tell me how you got started in music.
I cut my first record in Nashville, at Owen Bradley studios. I did a song called, “Dis-A-Itty-Bit”. I shared a session with a guy named Dale Wright. Dale took up three and one-half hours. That left me thirty minutes. A guy named Lou Douglas had written charts (laughs). Can you imagine charts for “Whole Lotta Shakin’”? This was just about that ridiculous. So they all sat down and Owen Bradley started playing like this (pantomimes a classical pianist). And I said, no, that’s not the piano part. And Lou said, “Well, sit down there and show him what you do.” So I sat down and started playing (pantomimes Jerry Lee Lewis on speed). And this guy said, “Move the vocal mic over here and let’s do it.”
Remember, this is mono, man, one take, what you hear is what you get. So in about fifteen minutes we had cut it. We rehearsed it a couple of times and got it on the first take. The guy on the label, Harry Carlson turned around and said, “My God, it’s an f-ing hit.” Then I did a song by Dale Wright. Totally opposite. This first song was like Jerry Lee Lewis, this one was Bing Crosby. Everybody’s scratching their heads. Now they’re going, “We’re going to have to put him out under two names. Nobody’s going to believe that’s the same singer.” (laughs).
That was the result of growing up in East Texas, playing in bands where you had to be a human jukebox. God forgive me, I was playing in a band called Robin Hood and His Merry Men. We’d do “Kansas City”, “Whole Lotta Shakin’”, “Tea for Two”, “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, “Good Golly Miss Molly.” From rock to swing to waltz to cha-cha to country ballads, one right after another.
That was the nature of the music scene when I was growing up. It was probably also a big part of the reason that I never had success as an artist, because I never really stuck with any style. I’m a musical chameleon. I’ve got chameleitis. Put me on green, I look green. Stick me on red, I look red.
So I put out a few records and none of them were big successes, but by then I had gotten into recording and producing. Now my chameleitis became an asset, because I could adapt to whatever style of music my artist wanted to go for.
How did you get into recording?
I built my first console in 1960. And when I say I built it, I really built it. Hand-soldered the whole damn thing from individual parts (Robin hands me a little box which has a single 12AX7 tube sticking out of the top, and inside are four or five resistors, a capacitor and a transformer). I even built modular, plug-in mic pres.
Man, this is cool! I bet this sounds pretty good!
Yeah, those Thordisen transformers sound better than anything I’ve ever heard.
I was one of the trailblazers in Texas. I told my engineer – he was the engineer at the radio station KDOK – he was going to help me build that console. I told him that I wanted ten mic inputs, with treble and bass on each input, and I wanted an echo send on every one. He’s going, “you don’t need that, just put one in the master section.” But I had to have it, because that’s what they had in Nashville. So I had the first console in this part of the country that had anything like that.
Do you have any idea what a 10-input all-tube console with Pultec EQ would go for these days?
I think Manley’s talking about putting out something like that, an 8-input stereo all-tube console, and she’s talking, what, sixty grand? These preamps sound great. In fact I’m rebuilding them for use here in the studio. That’s a sound you just can’t get anywhere else.
You’ve had some really cool equipment over the years. Is there anything you lost or sold and wish you still had?
I had a microphone one time that I really regret selling. My sister purchased it for me. I gave her some money when she was going to Germany. I wanted a Neumann, which we called a Telefunken because at the time Neumann was marketed by Telefunken in the States. Well, somewhere between the time she left the US and the time she bought my mic, Neumann stopped selling those mics to Telefunken and started marketing under their name Neumann.
She didn’t know that, so she bought me what was called a Telefunken, which was now being made by AKG. It was a Telefunken M250. It was a wonderful mic, and would be worth at least $18K today. One of the finest mics ever made in the world. It was built with a diaphragm like the U47 with electronics like a C-12. A killer mic, and not that many of them made. I really wish I still had that mic.
But I still have a lot of the cool equipment. Take this bass. (Robin opens a completely nondescript guitar case and holds up a Danelectro Longhorn Bass which is covered with drawings of little amphetamine capsules).
This is the bass used on all the ZZ Top recordings. It’s customized for recording. I installed two taps, one on each pickup, so we could record both pickups and EQ and mix them seperately. This is a magic bass. Truly a one-of-a-kind item.
So, how did you start your studio business?
I was taking my console, and my mono tape recorder, and my microphones and running all over to church basements, and auditoriums and wherever, recording whatever I could get my hands on. And I was doing all my work in the living room of my parents’ house. I’d be up until two o’clock in the morning recording, and it drove my parents totally ballistic.
Finally, in 1963 my Daddy said, “Well, the boy needs a studio.” My sister was an architect, so I drew a rough sketch of what I wanted, she drew up the plans and sent them back. So Daddy and I got out here in the back and dug up the ground and built the foundation. We hired a guy to lay the hadite blocks, and we did the rest. We did all the carpentry, the roofing, the plumbing, the electrical work, everything. It took us nine months to finish it. That’s why it looks so funky (laughs). I’ve got pictures of the original studio, where part of the walls were just bare hadite blocks. Which is probably why it sounded so good. Over the years I’ve remodeled quite a number of times.
We finished that studio in July of 1963. In November my father dropped dead of a heart attack. So I became the man of the house, supporting myself, my mother, and sometimes my sister. It was quite an eye opener. I remember kneeling down telling my Mom, as they took my father’s body out the door, “Mom, don’t worry, I’ll take good care of you.” Really, we took care of each other, and she became quite a fixture around this studio until she died. All the bands loved her, they called her “Ms. B.” She was a pistol. She’d raise some hell with the bands.
So when you started this studio, life for you was still mono?
Yeah. I learned a lot from watching the development of the multitrack recorder. Back when I started, Ampex was king. People called and asked about your studio, and the fist question they asked was, “what kind of recorders do you have.” If you said Ampex then the conversation could continue. If you said anything else, it stopped.
At the time they had the mono unit, the 2-track, and the 3-track. That was the 300 series. The 3-track was the big one, with sel-sync. You could record a track, put it over in sel-sync, and record another one. This was the first overdubbing recorder. But they wouldn’t put sel-sync on their smaller machines, the 350 or the 351.
So I figured out that I could unscrew the playback head and the record head, take the record head from channel one that I just recorded, plug it into a transformer, take that and screw it into the playback head, and I could then use the record head for a playback head and dub in sync. So I was the first guy in East Texas doing that. And I was doing it with a 350! That old thing had metal tubes – pop one of those tubes and it went “booiing.” You want to keep the speakers kinda low when you’re cutting (laughs). That was my second innovation, after the console.
Then one day I was at the Hammond organ store. And this guy comes in and says, “watch this.” He starts playing this organ, then he hits this button and all the sudden we got reverb! I said, “Where did that come from?” Well the organ had a reverb unit in it. The original ones had springs, like a woman’s necklace that hung down in drapes, and this big amp that went with it. So I said, “I don’t want the organ, I just want the reverb unit.” So he sold us one, and we set it up in the studio. At one time I had it hanging on the wall, behind a curtain. People would come in to record and there was this beautiful reverb. The other engineers around just scratched their heads!
That’s how it used to be. The engineer really had to innovate. I built my first delay unit. I took a 40 foot pipe, put a speaker in one end and a mic in the other and put it in the attic, and baby, we had delay. And I had what must have been the first live echo chamber in Texas. We had two mics in one end, and a speaker in the other. Man, it sounded great. I’m using it for storage now, but I plan to put that back in operation.
Modeled and simulated effects still just don’t sound like the real thing. I had a guy call me the other day. He’s remixing a song we recorded here years ago. He asks me, “where did you mix that song?” I told him we mixed it here. He’s surprised, and he asks, “what kind of reverb did you use? We need to get that sound for the remix, and nothing we have sounds like it.” I told him it was a live chamber. He puts his hand over the phone and yells, “Hey Hank, I told you that was a live chamber.” He knew immediately that he was screwed – he could call up and rent just about any old reverb unit ever made – but he couldn’t reproduce my reverb room. It just sounds different. It’s real, it isn’t a model, and you can hear the difference.
That was part of the magic of different studios back then.
You know, for so long, I could listen to a record on the radio, and tell you where it was cut. Each studio had its own particular sound. The sound came from those innovations that we had to make for ourselves. There was a difference in the miking techniques, there was difference in the rooms, there was difference in the equipment, there was difference in the echo chambers.
In New Orleans, the rooms were big and live, and the miking was far away, and you had that big sound. In New York, they had their own big room thing on the classical and big bands, but the rooms sounded different. In Nashville they miked everything real close up and you could really hear the playing style. And in L.A. they had lots of dead rooms and compression. So you could tell where things were recorded, and there was real diversity. That’s gone now.
Today, everybody’s using digital, so how hard you drive it doesn’t affect the sound. People used to cut either using peak metering at -3 or RMS metering at +4 with tape saturation. With digital you don’t do that anymore. Many people are using samples, and they’re all using the same samples. And each sample is hyped to the point that every sample sounds like you’ve got your head stuck in that instrument. So when I use samples I have to get rid of that presence, on toms, on keyboard stuff. You got to push it back from the speakers, make it sound like its coming from a few feet behind the speakers, and leave the vocals and a few other instruments up front.
Everybody’s using the same algorithms in reverb units. I mean, sure, there’s some difference, but let’s face it, you go to a Lexicon, or a Yamaha, or whatever, and they’re all accomplishing it in approximately the same way. And what do you have? You have the same kind of sounds. Everybody’s echo chamber used to have very different curves, and reflections. Some sounded brighter, some sounded a little boomy. The consoles all sound the same today – there’s not that much difference in the sound of consoles today like there used to be. Combine that with the cookie-cutter approach to production that we have now in mainstream music and you understand why we’ve screwed up a lot of good music.
We had one of our music directors here at a country station in town who got all of the jocks and the production people in the control room. He turned their backs and started playing the new cuts from the major labels. In some cases they couldn’t even identify the artists! They all sound alike. Their voices sound alike, their phrasing sounds alike. Go back in early rock and roll and listen to some of the great people that helped create this business, and you could tell them apart after four seconds of intro. And the second they sang a word you knew who it was. You didn’t get Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Roy Orbison mixed up.
So I’m trying to change that. One of the ways is by going back to older, funky equipment. A lot of people are doing this. Tube preamps, natural echo chambers, old effects. Something different. I’m sick of this in-your-face production where everything sounds alike.
It’s hard to be a trailblazer anymore, when so much of the sound comes from a box.
And it used to be good to be a trailblazer. I had one of the first real consoles in Texas. I had one of the first dubbing recorders in Texas. I had probably the first four-track, and one of the first eight tracks, and one of the first 24 tracks anywhere near here, including Austin, Dallas or Houston. I was a trailblazer. Then came digital, and I learned with digital it’s not good to be a trailblazer anymore. Being a trailblazer in the world of digital is like being tied to the front end of an icebreaker when it’s going through the ice. It’s not a good gig at all.
This is the problem with digital. (He shows me an old reel of analog tape.) This tape was cut in 1953. I can go back and drag out an old home recorder from back there, and put it on, and it will play. I can go to my brand new 2-track analog machine and it’ll work on that, too. Two machines, separated by 45 years, and this old tape can play on either one. But if you take digital, well, there have already been fifteen or twenty formats come and go. If you were one of those lucky fools who bought some early digital machine and started investing your life in that, look out. That’s like buying a ticket to a certain town, and you get halfway there and they tell you, “We’re very sorry but Houston has vanished” but you’re going there anyway, you’ve bought your ticket to nowhere. You’re screwed.
So I got really cautious when digital came out and I started seeing these formats popping up everywhere. Then ADAT arrived. I wasn’t going to buy ADATs. ADAT sounded like the stupidest idea in the world to me. They told me about ADATs, and I said, “Let me get this straight. I have attention deficit disorder and you want me to deal with a machine where there’s going to be three tapes for 24 tracks, and you’re going to want me to keep up with all of them?” But I learned more and more about them, and they got some of the bugs worked out so they would actually stay in sync, and now it’s a great format. You can send these tapes all around the country.
It’s really changed life for a lot of studio musicians and singers.
Take Michael Lanning – he’s the guy that does the “Heartbeat of America” commercials for Chevrolet – he does work for us. He’s got a little studio in his house. We’ll send him a tape with a rough mix and a dummy vocal. He’ll cut the vocal in his house and send it back, next day. It’s great, and cheaper than using ISDN.
Welcome to life in the New World of music.
In many ways it’s fantastic. But there are certain things about the way we did things back then that were better. Today, in Nashville, they go in with a live group and they cut individual tracks. I hate tracking. I just despise it. I hate MIDI. I do MIDI, because at times you have to, but it can be like wading with boots on – you don’t ever feel the water. To me the only reason to do MIDI is money. You don’t have the money to fill the studio with real players, so you do MIDI. Unfortunately in our world today it’s gotten that way in a lot of projects.
And everybody’s Pro Tooling today. Well, that’s great. Pro Tools is great stuff until you overdo it and start moving peoples’ grooves around. You end up just whitewashing something so there’s no music anymore. You can pay thousands of dollars for the finest musicians, go into the studio and get a groove, and then hand it to some kid in the back room who puts everything into Pro Tools and puts everything right on the beat like it was done with a drum machine. That doesn’t make sense to me.
The problem with Pro Tools is the same problem with MIDI – this concept of “perfection.” When I do MIDI, I play every single part live. I don’t type in a damn thing. I’ve done stuff where I wanted it to sound like a stark raving garage band – and you can do that with MIDI. And if you want something to sound a little more “perfect” then you use a little quantization in a certain part or on certain notes, and leave the rest loose. If you left out one note, you can add it. That’s where MIDI is amazing. That’s making the tool work for you.
But MIDI wasn’t like that when we first started using it. You know, before MIDI we searched all over for the “perfect drummer.” With MIDI we finally had it – and then we found out how bad that really sounds.
Remember “Hooked on Classics?” When it started out, we were amazed by this perfect beat. It was like, “look at this great new thing we can do, isn’t this wonderful.” It ended up like Chinese water torture. After about a minute and a half you start to squirm. After two and a half minutes you’re scratching and pulling your hair out. That’s what happens when you wind up slaving yourself to the tool. You’ve got to make the technology work for you.
But the music is changing. Music is a lot more organic these days than it was in the 80s.
I believe that if a thing is good, it will come back around. And that’s happening now. A big change started with MTV’s Unplugged. The MTV generation had grown up in the 1980s with Madonna and MIDI and the picture-perfect L.A. sound of rock and roll – everything polished, larger than life and picture-perfect. Along came MTV Unplugged. They took musicians that had these highly polished albums and had them perform without MIDI or even amplifiers, and these kids learned to appreciate the human feel in the music. I think that’s an evolution back to the way we used to make records. You take these swing bands that became popular in the last year or two – their sound is all about live performance. People are ready to feel the music again.
It’s just got to be human. When I produce, I always leave a little hair on it. Go back and listen to the theme from “Shaft” with headphones on. If you listen with headphones, the drummer actually drops his sticks, and cusses – you can hear him say “shhht”. That’s why I think music today is Pro Tooled to death. If five musicians get together, and they can’t groove, you gotta figure out who’s holding up the groove, and get rid of him. When you get the groove, it doesn’t really matter if there’s a little error. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
That’s why these days I like working with bands that record live. You get six or eight musicians in the room together, dial everything up, and make it happen. I think something very special happens when everybody’s playing at once, and everybody’s impressing everybody else. There’s interaction. It’s great, and that’s where you get a great performance.
That’s the difference between real, solid entertainment and well-recorded background noise.
I think entertainment is the key. If you go back and listen to old rock and roll, back in the 60’s and 70’s we had rock and roll that was really hard rock, but it entertained you, it didn’t assault you. Too much of the music today assaults you without being entertaining. Hey, man, I like really hard rock, but I’m tired of being assaulted. I want to be entertained. That’s why I don’t go to some of the movies that are out these days. If there’s a story, if it’s funny, or poignant, then fine, it’s okay if it’s intense. There’s a point to it. But if it’s just designed to scare the shit out of me or make me wish I was somewhere else, I won’t waste my time. Why pay those bucks? I’d rather just stay home, drink a glass of Cabernet, and play with the baby’s mama, you know what I mean?
Is your production philosophy the reason why you aren’t using Pro Tools?
I just don’t need Pro Tools for the style of production that I do. With this board (points to his Mackie Digital 8-Bus) you can get the same sound Pro Tools has by having so many limiters and compressors and all kinds of EQ and processors. But you can still “play” it like an analog mixer.
I did this mix here yesterday, and the output meters weren’t moving 2 dB – it was just in your face, and there was no overall compression, it was just individual compressors on each track. And the control you have over every single parameter is just amazing. Rumor has it that when Greg Mackie specified this board he told the designers that he wanted to be able to have every single parameter in every part of the mixer – faders, pans, EQ, everything – all moving at the same time, and only be using half the processor power of the system. There’s a lot of power here.
We had this girl doing backups the other day, and the track was perfect, except at the very end of the track she got a little close to the mic and got a little breath noise on the mic. So down towards the end, I just moved the frequency on the highpass filter up a bit, and got it out of there, and didn’t have to mess up the rest of the mix. And to be able to dynamically modify your effects – on this song, the guitars start out with a wash of reverb, and then its just got to disappear. No problem, just automate it. So it’s got the flexibility of Pro Tools, with the human feel of a real mixer. It’s like a word processor for music.
So you like your Digital 8-Bus?
Well, I had some initial problems with the board. I’ve actually had several units in here trying to get one that works. One mixer had an unplugged circuit board inside. Another had a screw rattling around. Some guy in manufacturing dropped a screw in there and rather than get it out, he just put in another one. There’s this little screw, probably cost 1/100th of a cent, but it was keeping the board from working correctly. But I’ve talked to other people that bought these mixers and they worked right out of the box and never had a problem.
Now that it’s working, I’d have to say that it’s really an incredible board. It has a lot of power and flexibility. If this was a Neve, it wouldn’t fit in this room. That’s how powerful it is. And it’s small enough that I have all of my important rack gear right here on the desk with me, within reach. I got sick and tired of having to roll around the room tweaking EQ and compression. Now everything I need is either in the Mackie or right here in the console desk.
Is there anything about the Mackie that you really can’t stand?
The only really dumb thing on this console is right there (points at the record button). Not only do you use that to record – and erase the tape – but if you want to set certain automation things and then have them automatically pick up when you start the tape you arm it by hitting that record button. I mean, I’m 60 years old, I’ve been engineering since 1954, and I’m not about to hit a damn record button on a digital tape recorder that has bugs in it and hope that it doesn’t do the wrong thing. It’s kind of like building a combination .357 Magnum and nasal inhaler – stick it in your nose and just hope to God you have the switch in the right direction (I am now laughing hysterically).
But I love the meters. When Mackie says “clip” on the meters – and the cute little red light comes on – this ain’t a Christmas decoration folks. It is similar to the idiot light on a car where the red light comes on that says “you have just burned your engine up.” That is the most accurate meter bridge I’ve ever seen. If it says “clip” you have clipped. It lets you really know where the top is, and you can use all the headroom that’s there.
When did you start working with the artists that were going to make you successful?
When I first started out I had a few local clients – there was a local record company, and I did their records. And I recorded square dance records down in the church basement. There were a few acts out of Shreveport and around East Texas that I had on my roster.
The first actual hit record I did was by David Houston, a country artist on Epic, I think, who did a song called “Mountain of Love.” That song was a hit. Then Dale Hawkins brought a group in called The Uniques, and they had a Billboard hit I recorded with them called “Not Too Long Ago.”
In fact, about a year ago I got a call from Dale Hawkins. He wanted to fax me something, so I gave him my fax number, and he faxed me both sides of the check from that session. I think the check was for $345. We did that record, and the damn check bounced. So in order to cover the session Dale went over and sold the session to Stan Lewis at Jewel / Paula Records in Shreveport. And it was a hit song.
It was then, when I had a couple of hits, that they really started coming. I worked with a lot of guys that hit the charts. I did John Fred and the Playboy Band, the Uniques, the Five Americans, John and Robin and the In Crowd, and Nat Stuckey. I did all kinds of stuff. I even did some contemporary Christian stuff, like “Bullfrogs and Butterflies,” an album that went gold for a group called Candle. I loved working with all of them. I learned a lot from them. I learned simplicity. I had been trained classically in music – I had classical piano lessons and choir and church music as my training.
So you had acquired a kind of baroque production style?
I had acquired… too much taste. You know what I’m saying? We’re doing rock and roll here, folks. The music has to have the right feel. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t have the technically perfect performance. It has to feel right.
I learned a lot working with John Fred and the Playboy band – those guys were all from LSU. They were all college trained musicians. There were things that I learned from those guys. You really need to get the old John Fred albums, because they’re good albums – “Judy in Disguise”, “Up End Down”, “Agnes English” – those are great songs.
They did wonderful things with percussion. They’d have one guy with sandpaper blocks, another guy with shakers. A real human feel. They taught me how to play a cowbell. They’d have a cowbell on a stand, and a guy would play it with a glove – he’d grasp and let go of it while he played it with both the tip and the butt of the stick. It was really funky, sort of a ticky-pom-pom ticky-pom-pom sort of sound. You take that with sandpaper blocks and maybe some conga or something, and you can do a whole record like that.
Then I worked with this band from Houston called The Moving Sidewalk. They did a couple of day sessions, which weren’t all that great, and they went home unhappy about it. They did another session, they weren’t all that happy about it either, and they went home again. It was either on the third or fourth trip up here that their manager, Bill Hamm, had made up his mind that this was the last try. By this time they had changed their name from The Moving Sidewalk to ZZ Top.
You will probably always be known for your work with on those early ZZ Top records. Those are classic records. There are a lot of rock and rollers out there, millions of them, who will tell you that those early ZZ Top records are among the very finest rock and roll records ever recorded.
I had this concept in my mind of what I wanted to do with the guys, to create a sound for them. But Bill Hamm had been burned when he booked a band one time that had done some overdubs. Bill wanted ZZ Top to be strictly three instruments, no overdubs, nothing. Period. But the sound just wasn’t happening.
So while Bill was in the restroom, I leaned over and talked to Billy Gibbons and said, “Billy, I got an idea, but we’re going to have to get Bill out of here. He’s afraid that it’s going to be this massive, layered thing that you can’t reproduce in person. That’s not what I have in mind. What I have in mind, you’d swear it was three instruments, but it’s bigger. Trust me.”
So when Hamm came out of the restroom, I said, “You’ve been promising these guys all along you’re going to buy them barbeque ribs, and I’d like to have some ribs.” Well, Bill Hamm being such a nice guy, he jumped up and said, “OK, yeah, I’ll buy the ribs. How do you get there?” I said no problem, you just go down Vine street here, and turn right on Front street, and you go out there on Highway 31, it’s right out there. If you get lost, just stop and ask, everybody knows where it is. Best barbeque in the world.”
Well, I didn’t tell the man it was over in the next county (we laugh). Sure enough, I got the guys in and said, “We got about an hour and a half. Let’s go.” We got in there, we cut a track, and we started doing a few little tricks and some overdubs that were not that obvious. It still sounded like three instruments – you wouldn’t know anything had been overdubbed – but we struck gold. It was pay dirt.
So Bill walked back in, and Dusty, Billy, Frank and I were in the control room, just sitting here waiting. He came in and said, “All right, I got the ribs.” Everybody started eating ribs, having a good time. And Billy said, “By the way, Bill, I think we found the sound.” Bill said, “OK, let me hear it.” So I pushed the play button and we stood back and watched Bill.
What song was that?
Hell, I don’t know. I have attention deficit disorder, I can’t remember these things. You know, there’s one good thing about ADD: you get to meet the same people six or seven times for the first time, and it makes you think you have a lot more friends than you really do (we laugh).
But anyway, Bill jumped up, barbeque and all, and said, “That’s it! That’s the sound! Play it again!” We played it at least three or four times, and Billy Gibbons said, “Are you sure that’s the sound?” And Bill said, “Yeah, I love it! That’s exactly what I’ve been hearing in my head.” And so we had to sorta pull the wool over Bill’s eyes, just to get him to agree to some of this overdubbing that we did.
That’s a classic producer / engineer story. The producer has to be in the driver’s seat helping the band define what the sound should be, but at some point he has to let go and let the engineer and the band achieve that sound.
Yeah. I was with those guys not long ago in Shreveport, and Billy reminded me of another story. It was when we were recording La Grange. That was, you know, a real over-the-top hit, and it’s still one of their most popular songs. Remember it has the cool beginning, with the low, almost spoken vocals? That’s not how it was supposed to go. He had always sung that vocal an octave up, loud, in a strong voice, like the rest of the song.
Well, we were getting mic levels for the lead vocal, and Billy was warming up. He didn’t know I was recording him, and he was doing these vocals in that deep voice. So he stopped after a couple of verses and said, “I’m ready.” So I went over to another track and cut his leads on that track. When Billy came in to listen, I used that low voice for the first verse, and then it went up an octave for the second verse. The band really liked that, and that’s the way it stayed on the recording.
Damn, that vocal beginning is the magic on that song.
A lot of studio magic happens like that. You have to record everything, because musicians will take some great chances when they don’t think they’re being recorded.
What was the secret of their success?
You know, I’ve done a lot of work that made it to the charts – singles and albums that went gold and platinum, but ZZ Top was a megaband. A phenomenal success. And people always ask me why ZZ Top has been the most successful group that recorded here. Were they the most talented? They were very talented, but there were others who had just as much talent. Was it the songs? The songs were good, but there were others that were just as good. Was it the sound? The sound was excellent, but I’ve done other work that sounded as good.
There were two things that made them successful, I think. The key reason was their manager, Bill Hamm. Attilla the Manager. Hamm was and is an excellent producer and manager, and he’s what made The Top successful. And I learned a lot from him too. Too often we forget that “music business” is two words. We focus only on the music and forget the business. Bill Hamm is an excellent manager. The other key factor in their success was that they had a unique thing happening musically. I’ll tell you another story about that.
While I was working with them, I had this guy call up. He had this song that he said would be perfect for ZZ Top. I put this tape on and started playing it, and the music kicked off, and I went “Wow.” I had dollar signs in my eyes. I said, “This is IT.” It sounded great.
But I kept listening to the song, and something just wasn’t right. It was a great song. Boy, it was a good song. But something was just telling me that this was just not a ZZ Top song. I couldn’t figure out why. I thought about it, and thought about it. I couldn’t pin it down. Later that night I sang a few ZZ Top songs in my mind, and I put that tape back on, and voila, there it was, the secret formula: ZZ Top plays the blues, but they don’t sing the blues. They’re singing happy things that people want to hear about. Usually about good looking women (laughs). They aren’t singing about how things are down and out and horrible. Even a song like “Jesus Just Left Chicago” is a long way off from “My Baby Just Left Me This Morning.” So they had a unique trip going.
Well, a lot of ZZ Top fans will tell you that those albums you recorded, those first four albums, those were the real ZZ Top records.
Maybe. But bands change and evolve. Those later albums like Eliminator and Afterburner are solid. They found a bigger sound, and those albums sure sold a lot of copies. And that’s the bottom line. Happy fans can’t be wrong.
What other acts really influenced your career?
I’ve cut tracks for Neil Diamond, Ike and Tina Turner, a live project with James Brown. I did part of the famous Willis Allen Ramsey album. He made a career on one album, that ain’t bad (we laugh).
You know, some of best groups to work with were the groups that made it in this part of the country, but didn’t make it all over the world. One of these was Mouse and the Traps.
Mouse and the Traps?
Mouse and the Traps. Mouse sounded so much like Bob Dylan that when his first record was released, the Columbia distributor who was driving into Dallas called in to KLIF and asked, “how the hell did you get a Dylan record without me knowing about it, and why the hell is he calling himself Mouse?”
I worked with a lot of the artists that have come out of Texas at one point or another. I did a session or two with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmie Vaughan, back when they had their band together. They were some of the first blues players that I produced. And we produced a group named Gladstone, that had some success here, and strong success in Europe.
What’s the weirdest session you ever did?
Well, this isn’t the strangest session I’ve done, but it’s the strangest session I’ll talk about in public (laughs). Johnny Paycheck was doing a concert in town, a real big deal, live TV, everything. He called me up and wanted to book a session after his gig. Well, he came over here about two or three in the morning, drunk as a skunk, and cut a cover of “Days of Wine and Roses”. George Jones ain’t ever been as drunk as he was. Anyway, the session hadn’t been approved by management, so when I sent the bill to the record label they wouldn’t pay me. We went back and forth, and finally their attorney wrote me a letter and said, “As far as we’re concerned, Johnny Paycheck was never in your studio.”
I showed it to my attorney and he said, “Save that letter, that’ll be worth a lot of money. Take those masters, mix ‘em down and press them, and call the artist Johnny Hotcheck, and you can clearly prove by their letter that Johnny Paycheck was never in your studio.”
Did you do it?
No, but I’m seriously thinking about it (laughs). I really am (grins). I’ve been screwed for twenty years on those tapes, it’s about time to collect (we’re both just falling out laughing by now).
Let me tell you one last story, and an appeal to anyone who’s reading this.
About two or three years after I put in this studio, I got a call from a little old lady and asked if she could come by. She came over and told me that her husband had died six months ago, and he had recorded over here, and she was wondering if there was any chance I still had that master tape. Well, I don’t throw away master tapes. I went in the back and I found it. And Rip, the look on that woman’s face told it all. She started crying, and I almost cried, because it was so precious to her.
I have had a policy since then to never throw away a master. Man, after forty years in this building, I have got masters stuffed away in parts of this place where there ought to be sunshine and air. I have roomfuls of masters that I need to get back to people. If anybody knows of anybody who recorded here – I can’t just give these tapes to anyone – but if you recorded here, yes, by all means please come and get them.
Also, if anyone wants to preserve them, I’ll do that. You know, those old tapes have to be baked to become playable. I have all that equipment, as well as the original recorders most of them were recorded on. So I would like to restore or preserve any of the history that’s sitting around these rooms. And when we do that, we’re saving these old masters for future generations, which is really great.
What advice can you give to people who are just starting out in production?
I take my production philosophy from George Martin. I developed it on my own, over the years, but I read an interview with George where he just put it perfectly into words. As a producer, it’s not my job to tell the band what to be. It’s my job to help them be whatever it is that they want to be to the best of their ability. You can’t fight the music. It’s going to go in whatever direction it wants to go. My job is to get it there the best I can.