Tony Visconti is a Record Producer, Recording Engineer and Music Arranger whose career spans more than five decades. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, he moved to London, England in the late 1960s as an assistant to Denny Cordell (producer of Joe Cocker) and went on to discover young talent on his own-- namely David Bowie and Marc Bolan of T.Rex. Visconti produced many iconic albums in the 1970s and continued to work with David Bowie, a collaboration and friendship which began in 1967 and lasted until David Bowie’s last four albums, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day and Blackstar. Visconti currently works in New York City and London.
Here's our chat with Tony:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
In recent years I have had the great fortune to work with Perry Farrell, and Damon Albarn’s group, The Good, The Bad and The Queen. Both albums were as intense as a Bowie album to record. Both artistes are incredibly talented and creative. With Damon’s group I had the pleasure of working with Tony Allen, one of the best drummers in the world! Kristeen Young is a phenomenal artiste. She is the Rock Stars’ darling. She and David Bowie sang together on his Heathen album and he sang a duet with her on her Breasticles album, a song called “Saviour.” That song is coming out as a remix soon. Other stars who worked with Kristeen are Morrissey, Brian Molko of Placebo and Dave Grohl. In recent months I’ve worked with a new artist, Brion Starr, on his new album.
The recent Bowie reissue projects you've worked on have been a real triumph (especially the career-spanning box sets), with some of the albums being "re-visited" and given a new sonic life via remixes using newer technology to improve sonics while retaining the essence of the original. Metrobolist, Lodger and some of the live albums are especially good examples of this. How did this approach come about?
Those Bowie albums had anniversaries coming up and his estate was right on it. I worked closely with Nigel Reeve who was in charge of the box sets and we had long discussions about the approach to the remixes and also the text and photos. I was involved at all levels.
During several breaks when David and I were making Blackstar I started to remix Lodger without anyone knowing about it. We always felt that if we had more time and a better studio it would’ve sounded amazing. I thought it should have the inventiveness of the uplifting mixes I did for Scary Monsters, when we did have more time and a better studio. I threw everything into that album and he was so happy with it. After I had covertly remixed the first five songs of Lodger I told David I had a surprise for him. What I set out to do was so obviously different sounding from the original mixes – to give Lodger the Scary Monsters sound. But would it sound different to him? So I nervously started “Fantastic Voyage” and as soon as he heard the drum fill intro to that song his face lit up with a big smile. When it ended I stopped playback and waited for his comments – he was thrilled! We said we would remix this album one day but could never find time. He wanted to hear the rest of it, which was side one of Lodger. He was so thrilled he ‘green lighted’ it immediately to be finished. Then we went back to making Blackstar. The following January David left us and I threw myself into finishing the mixing of Lodger; it helped me to deal with the grief.
About Metrobolist, David and I always regretted that we couldn’t have more studio time back in the day to mix it properly. I was afraid to bully a cutting engineer back in the day, too, so I just let it go like it was. I was never happy with all the re-releases over the years because they were done without my participation (David couldn’t be bothered). There is no doubt in my mind that David would’ve approved of the new mixes.
We could draw some parallels between these Bowie projects and the recent Beatles remasters and their subsequent remixes. Do you see this as part of a trend toward both honoring the original, and improving upon historic albums when it's deemed appropriate?
The new technology is a double-edged sword. I tried to remain true to the recordings exactly as they were, but today virtually anything can be ‘fixed’ and the temptation was there to make some corrections. Fortunately David had remarkable pitch control and his timing was impeccable, so no ‘fixing’ was necessary. My remixes made everything sound both fuller and clearer, making sure that every nuance was heard, with a few special effects thrown in not available back in the day.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on lately? How has that changed over the years?
I’m still a straight forward Record Producer/Engineer/Arranger and those proportions vary from project to project, but it’s always been like that. One minute I’m telling everyone what to do, the next moment I’m standing next to the lead singer doing backing vocals. Nothing is all that different since I’ve started this career 50 years ago. It’s the same job description, but I have to say that modern technology makes the job more exciting. I pick the artistes I work with carefully. I have to work with very creative artistes. I can’t afford to get bored.
I love tape, but it had great limitations when recording. There was no such thing as a playlist in the ‘70s. Bowie, Marc Bolan, Phil Lynnot, Morrissey all were great singers when I worked with them. After a few vocal takes they nailed it! That doesn’t happen much these days. But I don’t mind, as long as the finished product is great and I’m proud of it, and the artist is knocked out – that’s all that counts.
How did you get started in music/audio production?
I was a professional musician before I got into record production. My best friend was a recording engineer for Atlantic Records in the ‘60s. He smuggled me into a few sessions there and gave me a crash course in mixing during some weekends. I started making killer demos at home of my songs. Those demos got me a job as house producer in a music publishing company. That’s where I met my future mentor and boss, Denny Cordell, who was on a visit to New York from London. He wowed me with his accent. We got along well and he played me a new single he’d produced, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” by Procol Harum. Denny asked if I’d be interested in being his assistant as a co-producer. A month later I was in London, working alongside Denny in the biggest studios there. I learned engineering by watching and asking questions of Peter Grant of Olympic Studios, Glynn Johns and Malcolm Toft (who taught me most of what I learned). Soon I was mixing my productions and then mixing Denny’s first Joe Cocker album. That was a hit record. I was never a ‘teaboy’, I was taught by being thrown in the deep end.
Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?
This will sound weird but my two heroes are Ludwig Von Beethoven and George Martin. Both were revolutionaries in their fields and left the music world in a better place after their departure. Then there’s Les Paul who had the only 8-track machine for many years before Ampex decided to mass produce them. Les showed us how one man and his wife (Mary Ford) could become a big band through the art of overdubbing. And who doesn’t want a Les Paul solid body Gibson leaning in the corner? The Beatles’ Revolver album basically taught me all I needed to know before I jumped in the deep end of record production.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
In the studio I’ve had many obstacles. Making an album with a group of musicians is fraught with potential problems. Band members often disagree, there is rivalry. I’ve often played the role of mediator. In the old analog studios equipment was fragile and sometimes broke down in the middle of a session. Clients insisted they wouldn’t pay for downtime. I eventually had a room full of spare parts and learned to fix equipment on the spot. If I couldn’t fix something I had several technicians on call to come to the studio ASAP.
As for creativity, I’m rarely at a loss for ideas. I’m so used to being responsible for what goes on in a recording studio (that is the job definition) I wouldn’t be doing what I did for such a long time if I wasn’t any good at it.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
I am fanatically devoted to Pro Tools. It is such a great, stable platform. I’ve been using it for more than ten years now, and with Logic for fifteen years before that. Pro Tools is a big, virtual studio on a screen. Logic is a big orchestra on a screen. I have a small wall of analog gear, vintage and new signal processors. My favorite plug-ins are from Eventide (including their stand alone H9), WAVES and Izotope. I have a big microphone collection going back to the late 60s. I’m a big fan of Neumann mics. When I hear a singer just speak I know what mic is going to bring out the best in their voice. I have too many guitars and basses, including my first new custom made bass by Parizad Hatcher. I have a rare electric 12-string made for me by the immortal Tony Zemaitis, made back in the ‘70s. My instruments are in constant use and loaned to musicians when I produce their records.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?
It must be very frustrating trying to make it into the professional recording world these days. The only advice is to create something new with the people around you. You could have a great artiste living in your town. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on recording equipment these days. What you have inside your head is unique! Go out into your world and find like minds and make a big noise.
How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?
I’ve been working on headphones since I was fifteen, making my demos at home. In those days the big headphone company was Koss, and I spent a good deal of my saved up money to buy a pair. I lived in a crowded apartment building and I couldn’t play music too loud. Those Koss headphones had great low end response and I could make good sonic decisions on them. I play mixes I did back then these days and I’m surprised how good they sound.
Nowadays I use Audeze headphones for a go-to alternate reference during mixing. The frequency response is smooth over the whole audible range, really easy on the ears, no bumps. They are such an important chain in my mixing process. We love Audeze headphones.