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It's Tony Visconti week in Record-Producer.com!

Record-Producer.com starts a sequence of reviews of the new autobiography by the producer of Marc Bolan and David Bowie...


Er.. who is Tony Visconti and how exactly did he come to get a week all to himself in the Audio Masterclass?

Well, you may not have heard of Tony Visconti, but you have certainly heard of David Bowie, and probably heard of Marc Bolan (I say 'probably', because although he was massively popular in the UK, his band T. Rex only had one major hit in the United States. Shame - they don't get Oasis either.)

Well Tony Visconti was the producer that got Marc Bolan started and who also worked extensively with David Bowie. Someone with that kind of experience must have interesting tales to tell.

And tell them he does, in a new book called 'Tony Visconti the Autobiography', subtitled 'Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy'.

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Now just because some publisher sends me a free book doesn't mean that I'm necessarily going to write about it. I might just take it to the next jumble sale in my local village hall where it might make a pound for charity.

So if I do write about a book, it means I like it. And to devote a whole week to 'Tony Visconti the Autobiography' means I like it a lot!

What I particularly like about this book are the insights into recording and production practice. Like any autobiography, there is a lot of personal history, which doesn't really interest me except to provide a context for the 'real' stuff. But that's OK. There's plenty of real recording and production content to compensate.

Back in the late 1960s there were no rules on recording. Well, I guess they had to keep control of the distortion and noise and other technical issues, but musically they could record any way they liked.

Visconti recorded the first album by Marc Bolan's band Tyrannosaurus Rex (later to become T. Rex) in 1968. The album was called...

'My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows'

Yes, really.

It took two days to record the album and two days to mix it. That's four days! These days it takes more like two months to record an album. Clearly all the lovely toys we have now are not exactly productivity enhancing.

And the mix was done by Tony Visconti. It was standard practice then for the engineer who had recorded the album to mix it also. These days mixing is often handed over to a specialist mix engineer, who may be good at his job but, for me, the all-important element of artistic continuity is lost.


The mix was done in mono!

By 1968 stereo had already been around commercially for a decade, but still it had hardly penetrated the mass market, so a good mono mix was vital.

When they had perfected the mono mix of a song, they would twiddle the pan controls and run off a quick stereo mix too!

By the way, I seriously recommend you have a go at mixing in mono. It's bloody difficult!

The reason for this is that the sound has fewer dimensions. Individual instruments have their favored frequency bands, which of course can be manipulated by EQ, and the engineer can control the levels.

In stereo there is the added dimension of direction. You can pan instruments left, right or anywhere in between.

So two instruments that are clashing and indistinct in a mono mix can be spread out across the stereo sound stage. They will both be clearly audible.

I would say though that if a stereo mix doesn't sound good when collapsed into mono, then it isn't really a good mix.

Visconti also talks a lot about the business of music, which is a real insight and demonstrates clearly how musicians are often treated downright badly by the industry.

For example, Visconti had been receiving a producer's royalty of 2% in the early days of Tyrannosaurus Rex and T. Rex.

T.Rex had some very successful records and Visconti would have earned quite a lot of money, which was his just reward for his contribution.

(The band, by the way, did not receive royalties. Bolan paid them a wage.)

And then Marc Bolan decided to set up his own record label, which was unusual in those days.

Visconti received a phone call from Bolan's lawyer telling him that he would not be paid a royalty in future. Instead he would receive the sum of £10,000 a year for his services.

£10,000 a year would have been a reasonable income at the time. But it was far less than the royalties would have been. And royalties are paid year after year. Even now when an early Tyrannosaurus Rex or T.Rex CD is sold, Visconti gets 2%.

So Visconti did what most people would like to think they would do in such a situation. He quit.

Bolan's bluff had been called, since he surely realized that Visconti was part of the winning team. He came back with the revised offer of a 1% royalty, which Visconti accepted. Half of what he was earning before.

This doesn't come as any surprise because the music business is known for being hard-nosed.

But treating people like this has the inevitable result of the relationship being soured, and Visconti justifiably states that, "My 'friendship' with Marc became an empty shell".

More from Tony Visconti tomorrow...

By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006