Extract from Joe Boyd's 2006 keynote Speech

at the 2nd ARP Conference

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Joe Boyd Interview

Katia Isakoff & Simon Zagorski-Thomas

© 2006

“The ideal for which I strove was to hear everything in balance with the melody singing out clearly.” (White Bicycles, 2006)

* * *

“Mixing was an endlessly fascinating jigsaw puzzle with the reward of hearing a wonderful piece of music slowly emerging before you, like watching a print in the developing bath. But with sounds you could control the colour, the contrast and even the positioning. I found the prospect that my life would involve countless repetitions of this process very pleasing. (White Bicycles, 2006)

* * *

“My productions had until then been mostly with working groups, which meant simply recording what was already there. But Nick’s compositions cried out for arrangements, an ideal setting for each song.”

* * *

‘The kind of producer that I was is not required in today’s process.’ (SOS, June 2006)

Joe Boyd: The Producer


Q1: a) What kind of producer do you consider yourself to be?

       b) How different do you consider this to be from today’s music producer?

JB: This will be addressed in my keynote speech (see ARP Edinburgh Keynote Speech above)


Q2: In your book you cite both Paul Rothchild and Bill Leader as mentors; two very different music producers.

Could you describe for us some of your observations on their working methods and how they helped shape and develop yours?

Technical Approach

JB: Very different. And probably not that influential although Rothchild was very fond of Neumann mics as I came to be. It was more a sense of how you wanted things to sound – so you could recognise it when it was correct or not.

People / Social skills


JB: Both treated musicians with respect. If musicians understood that you loved their music, they were happy to accept suggestions about how to make it come across better.


Communication skills (with recording engineers, musicians, managers, label executives)

JB: One thing that Paul had over Bill was a genuine love of the ‘business’.

It was clear, talking to him, that there was no point working in a vacuum. You had to bring promotion and sales people on board in order to make what you produced reach the consumer. I think Paul was influential in the fact that he was as enthusiastic discussing mic placement with an engineer as he was discussing radio play with a plugger or the design of a cover with the art director.


Relationship with Recording Engineer

JB: Bill was his own engineer and worked very differently from how I would work. I think I sensed when I travelled with bill that I was not going to make records that way. I never really felt that I could work without an engineer. Paul, also, was more of an engineer than I was. I have never had much of technical brain, so I was delighted to stumble across someone like john wood.

Q3: The idea of what a producer did changed radically between the mid 1960s and the mid 1970s. How much were you aware of the fact that the recording and production processes were merging with the composition and arrangement processes into a new form of creative music making (e.g. the importance of specific sounds in composition and the use of multi tracking as part of the creative composition process)?

JB: There was a natural convergence of process and result following the expansion of tape width. Going from 2 -4-8-16-24 tracks in such a short time-span had a huge effect on the process. Certainly Sgt Pepper was a landmark in that regard and you can hear the explosion of effects and multi-tracking in the years immediately following its release. Incredible string band were much more interested in technology as an adjunct to the creative process than any of the other artists I worked with, and that began as an effort to compensate for the loss of Clive palmer between album 1 and 2. Fairport and Nick Drake mostly recorded tracks live and overdubbed vocal harmonies and added instruments, or re-did lead vocals with the aid of the improved flexibility, rather than make fundamental changes in the way they created music.


Q4: In a similar vein, in genres where musicians have their own specific ‘sound’, how much do you consider that choosing the right musicians is part of the creative process of composition and arrangement?

JB: Nick Drake was the primary artist with whom I was able to choose the musicians for a session. John wood’s experience in working with many musicians on jingle sessions, classical sessions etc was of tremendous help in getting such distinctive musicians as Tristram Fry, Ray Warleigh etc. From my own contacts, I brought in Danny Thompson, Dave Swarbrick etc.

Working in L.A. with Maria Muldaur, we were able to use specific specialists on every track, from doc Watson to doctor john. In the kind of music I deal with, there are almost no situations where the choice of sideman is not crucial. Even on written string arrangements, we worked hard to get the best players and having a less than top-flight bunch was always a huge problem.

Joe Boyd: In the Studio & On Technology

“When we finished recording, I had my first experience of a sensation I came to relish in the coming years: I couldn’t wait to get the musicians out of the way so that the engineer and I could start mixing the multi-track tapes into a stereo master.”

“We were still using four-track tape machines in 1966, but the concept of multiple over-dubs was being explored and expanded by Denny Cordell, Mickie Most, George Martin and other British producers.”

“Just before I left for California came the beginning of the decline: some bright spark figured out how to squeeze twenty-four tracks on to the two-inch tape that previously held sixteen. The reduction in track width significantly degraded the sound quality” (White Bicycles, 2006)

“Another very important thing about Buena Vista was the sound of it – they recorded it in a very old fashioned way the sound is startling three-dimensional” (Radio Interview: Private Passions and Michael Berkeley)


Recording Engineers:

Keith Grant (Stones, Who, Zeppelin) – Olympic Session


JB: Only worked with Keith a couple of times – I used to come to Olympic with John Wood. But he was always very friendly and helpful.

John Wood (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, etc.) – Sound Techniques

JB: I would say that his strength was recording more than mixing. In an ideal recording, he would record it and I would mix with Jerry Boys. But most of what I learned, I learned from John. He has an ability to use the room as very much part of the sound and gets ‘positive spill’ more than any other engineer I know.


Jerry Boys (Nick Drake, Buena Vista etc.) – Sound Techniques


JB: Jerry is from the ‘John Wood’ school, but learned the trade at Olympic under Keith. SSL boards can be a problem for the kind of music I deal with, very transistorized etc, but Jerry has a method of mixing that utilizes the technological advances of the SSL while working very hard to keep the mix full of ‘air’ by using valve outboard equipment, EMT plates and other ways to avoid getting too much of an ‘SSL sound’.

Recording Studios:

Olympic Studios (old one on George Street)


JB: Just the one session there with Clapton/Winwood/Jones etc. It had a control room above the studio, like Sound Techniques; maybe that’s why I liked ST when I first went there.

Morgan Studios


JB: It had an 8-track before sound techniques so we finished overdubs and mixed ‘what we did on our holidays’ there. I met Chris Blackwell by accident there, so it was worth the trek to Willesden! Memorable moment there was recording Bruce Lacey’s robot whirring around Studio B for Fairport’s ‘Mr Lacey’.

Sound Techniques


JB: My home from home for many years – much missed and mourned. A studio with three ceiling heights, so you could vary the sound by moving a few yards over. Wonderful clear bright yet warm sound. Irreplaceable.



JB: I wish the rooms were larger. And I have never been able to mix in Studio B (always regretted having to mix the REM LP there…) But Studio A is my ideal mixing room. Everything I have done there is satisfying. Standing in front of the console, back to speakers, dead centre – the ideal monitoring position for me for many years.

Any reminiscences you care to share; notable recording sessions and the differing methods employed by the individual Recording Engineers. Technical approaches, personalities, would be much appreciated.

Q5: Geoff Frost at Sound Techniques had considerable success with his mixing console design in the late sixties and early seventies. Did the technical reputation of the studio make a difference to your decision to use it or were you more concerned with atmosphere?  

JB: Not sure that is actually true. I know Elektra bought a ST console and had lots of trouble with it. I had the impression that business was not a success – very much left in the dust by Rupert Neve. I stumbled across ST by accident and liked the room and John Wood, nothing more complicated than that.

Q6: What can you remember about the types of reverberation and compression available at Sound Techniques?

JB: There was an EMT plate or two and I think there was, for a while, a chamber. But I recall the chamber ending up as a tape store-room, so I don’t think we used it much. There was usually a choice of valve compressors – universal and various others over the years. They might have had a Pultec equalizer at some point.

Joe Boyd: In the Studio & On Technology

Q7: You mention in White Bicycles that John Wood, the engineer at Sound Techniques, occasionally made it known that he felt you were overlooking or ignoring the artists’ wishes. In your experience, how do these kinds of dialogues and negotiations manifest themselves?

JB: Very hard to generalize. Everything was a process involving strong-minded individuals. John got more involved with Nick Drake’s music than any other artist because of his affection for Nick and his music. Drum sounds was usually a struggle left to John and the drummer, both of them often with strong and sometimes opposing views. Individual sounds usually between player and engineer, with producer interfering as arbiter in case of stand-off or in case he felt strongly one side was in the right.

Q8: How do/did you deal with disagreements, rows, moods and sulks in the studio?


JB: There were remarkably few over the years. I think you try and head them off at the pass by making sure everyone is involved and all opinions heard. In the ‘world music’ years, disputes within the band were often loud and angry but I couldn’t interfere because they would be in Bulgarian!

Q9: How do you describe sound in the studio? Do you use a different vocabulary with engineers and artists? Can you give examples?

JB: I learned to be specific with engineers – like ‘can we have a bit more 3k in the voice?’ or something. But with the singer, I might explain that I want more ‘edge’ or ‘mid-range’ or something. In the mix, most dialogue with artists is experiential – either they like the way something sounds or they don’t. If an artist wants an instrument louder in the mix and I disagree, I might move it around the stereo image so it is more obvious, or give it some high frequency edge to make it clearer. I use the ‘a glass can’t be more than full’ image a lot in explaining how if you make something louder, everything else gets quieter.


Q10: Would you say that, in your experience, engineers and technicians are consistent in their use of technical terms? Can you think of any examples?

JB: Having been fortunate to limit my experience of engineers to a few very good ones, I don’t know about common usage around the world, but I think most engineers share a terminology.


Q11: Can you think of any examples that demonstrate other ways that people make their ideas about sound understood in the studio?

JB: ‘Punch – warmth – air – clarity – snap’ are some of the descriptive words that come to mind.


Q12: Could you comment on the role of the producer as the following:-

a) A conduit between the artist and record company (and their mutually incompatible aims)

JB: I don’t see those aims as incompatible. I am lucky not to have worked in the ‘Top 40’ world, so perhaps my view is narrow, but everyone from label president to artist wants a great record that the public will want to own. The differences come in opinions about how best to achieve that, but if I thought artist and label had opposing interests or objectives, I wouldn’t get involved.

b) An interpreter between artists and technicians

JB: I usually let artist and engineer deal with each other directly, certainly as regards mic placement, room arrangement, etc. During the mixing process, I get into the middle and the artist usually deals with me – although sometimes the engineer can explain better why something is not technically possible.

c) A diplomat / arbitrator amongst artists

JB: I usually arbitrate with set groups only if they want me to. With solo artists and sidemen or session musicians, again, I usually leave it to the musicians, only interfering if I have strong views one way or the other.

d) A Father figure or provider of trusted, detached critical faculties

JB: This is easier early in a recording career – and it was certainly easier before the producer became an employee of the artist – this is a subject I will address on Friday evening.

Q13: A few producers have defined part of their role as providing a stabilising influence to artists whose characters might have otherwise left them incapable of realising a recording project. Is this a role you recognise?

JB: Again, I will discuss this on Friday in my keynote speech, but the phrasing of this question implies the modern role of producer as ‘aide’ to an artist or someone who can help an artist realize a vision. I don’t see my role this way. I have visions, the artist has visions. If our visions agree, we can work together to achieve a mutually desired goal.

Q14: Can you think of an instance when the lack of a common language about sound (e.g. technical language or musical terms) had a strong impact on a session or project?

JB: No

Q15: When describing the Buena Vista recordings and Norah Jones’ debut album you make reference to the recording methods employed as being “perversely and deliberately antiquated”. When discussing the quality of recordings you refer to the sound as being ‘Three-Dimensional’ – could you elaborate on this?

JB: I think many listeners to both CDs have commented on the ‘depth’ of the sound. When a record is made in a room and the recording makes use of the sound of the room as much as the sound of the instruments, when there are a multitude of open mics in the same space, with plenty of good ‘spill’ – as there certainly was in Buena Vista Social Club and to a lesser extent with Norah Jones – the sound has a quality I would describe as ‘3 dimensional’, unlike most modern recordings which I see as ‘shiny and 2-dimensional’, which is what you generally get with dead small rooms, clean separation between instruments and digital EQ and reverb.

Joe Boyd: In the Studio & On Technology


“I did a couple of records back to back at Livingston Studios with Jerry Boys [a protégé of John Wood and Sound Techniques] for REM and 10,000 Maniacs. Both records are kind of OK, and there are critics who say they are great records, but the fact is that neither record did really succeed, and they are not, I think, my finest hour as a producer.” (White Bicycles, 2006)

Q16: According to an interview in June of 2003, REM’s Mike Mills describes this period (1985) as a particularly difficult time for them.


"It might not have been the best time for us to be in England. We were exhausted from having just finished a tour right before we went into the studio, and going to England, where we didn't really know anybody and we'd never really spent any time there, we didn't really know how to deal with it.


I enjoyed working with Joe Boyd and I'm happy with the record - there's some songs I might, in a perfect world, re-record, but the record's got a very good feel to it, a nice mood that's a result of all that we were doing." (


a) How much of this was expressed to you or apparent at the time?

JB: I think we were all frustrated. I was frustrated by 2 things – that i had been used to working with great drummers, which allowed my desired method of going for the best live tracks as a basis for the lp without resorting to click tracks or too much layering. The weakness of some of the tracks became apparent as we added vocals and guitar parts etc, but we had moved from Livingston A to Livingston Studio B and A was booked up, so we couldn’t go back and re-do the tracks. And it was my first experience of mixing in Studio B, and I did not find it easy. When the LP was finished, I wanted to remix it and tried a day at Mayfair studios with another engineer but it didn’t work at all, so we were left with the Livingston mixes. The group are southern gentlemen, so they didn’t complain, but later I read comments that they were not happy with the record. I also wasn’t too happy, and was terrified before release that it would get torn apart by critics and fans, but someone faxed me the rolling stone rave the day it was on the newsstands and I was hugely relieved.


b) In retrospect do you think that recording in the US would have resulted in a more satisfying outcome for all…and perhaps a longer break between tour and recording?


JB: That wasn’t an option due to schedules. I would have been reluctant to do it on a tight schedule in a strange studio and I pretty much said to them if you want ‘Joe Boyd production’ you’d better come to Livingston.


Joe Boyd: On the Music Business

“I think the model of the multi nationals is a poor one. The more the business is in crisis the better for music as far as I’m concerned. I enjoy reading about labels in crisis.”

(Word: David Hepworth)

“Looking back at the Hannibal catalogue I realise the weakest records were the ones made because I was committed to the artist’s career” (Word: David Hepworth)

“As I arrived for a session at Morgan Studios one day, I brushed past someone leaving as I was coming in. We both stopped: Aren’t you Joe Boyd? – Aren’t you Chris Blackwell?”

“On the proverbial paper napkin in an Italian restaurant we sketched out a deal

(White Bicycles, 2006)

Witchseason Productions


Booking Agent



Hannibal Records

UFO Club (Promoter)

Q17: You’ve been involved in many aspects of the music industry (and film). How did you go about planning and making decisions relating to your various commercial ventures over the years?

JB: By the seat of my pants and the exigencies of the bank balance!

Q18: Did you have a business advisor / mentor? How did you educate yourself on the subject?

JB: No. Unfortunately, I think my family background was the impoverished descendants of wealth. So we had ‘attitude’ but no money to back it up. My big influence was probably Blackwell, who was a patrician with no regard for counting pennies. My attitude was do what worked for the music and let the money worry about itself – if you succeed, it will work out fine, if you don’t it is better to fail doing something worthwhile than succeed doing something you don’t believe in.

Q19: What factors led you to conclude that setting up a production company would be the way forward?

JB: That was the obvious thing to do in 1967 – I knew Cordell and the Essex Music setup and that seemed to be the model to aim for.


Q20: Hannibal Records: could you tell us more about how this came about and the rewards and challenges that came with it. What factors contributed to the decision to sell it?

JB: I was working for Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live) trying to run his film production company and not enjoying it at all. I longed to be back in the record business, where you could have an idea and see it on the market in a matter of months. I met with Blackwell and he had a demo from Taj Mahal who was out of a deal. We talked about setting up a label that could be a home to the likes of Taj – but the island relationship only lasted a few months. I ran afoul of the same chaotic structure around Blackwell that I ran into 20 years later and finished off Hannibal in 2000. Poetic!


I sold Hannibal to Ryko in 1991 because if I hadn’t, it would have folded.


Q21: The term ‘conflict of interest’ gets banded around from time to time in the industry – was this ever an issue or a cause for concern for you when managing a band or artist contracted to Witchseason Productions or signed to Hannibal Records?

JB: I never managed Hannibal artists. I did organize tours for Bulgarians and Cubans simply because no one else would. Generally, I would have been happiest if I had just been a producer/publisher. Getting involved in management and agency was a result of there not being any alternative. The kinds of artists I have always been drawn to are ones that are not obvious to others at the time. There is no point making a record, then watching the artist sit in Hungary for the next 5 years never touring. Or producing the Incredible String Band and having some folk agent booking them for a tour of highland folk clubs. No one else shared my vision of what could be achieved by Muzsikas or the Incredible String Band, so my only option was to do it myself.


Q22: What have been your observations and experiences of the way in which record producers are contracted and rewarded – now and then?

Stay tuned on Friday (see ARP Edinburgh Keynote Speech) [insert link]


JB: But one thing which is happening lately and which is not the subject of my talk is the way many labels are using the lack of mention of ‘new media’ or ‘ancillary usage’ in old agreements to avoid paying producers a share of synch or download or ringtone income. Shameful, in my (wholly objective) view!

Q23: Can you give any examples of missed opportunities or lost deals due to the lack of legal advice or contract (or legal loopholes)? Similarly can you give examples of when delaying ‘signing on the dotted line’ worked in your or your artists favour?

JB: I might have benefited from a good lawyer when I was setting up the Pink Floyd deal in 1966;   also when I sold Witchseason to Island Records in 1971.

Richard & Linda Thompson made an LP for Gerry Rafferty and Hugh Murphy in 1982 that was, essentially, “shoot out the lights”, but Richard hated the result and was able to walk away from an unsigned contract and re-make it for Hannibal.

Q24: Can you tell us more about Warlock Music Ltd?

JB: Too painful to talk about! Suffice to say it belongs to an investment trust now.

Joe Boyd: The Sound of Music


“I’m very proud of things I’ve worked on and I do listen to them, but what I would really like to be with on a desert island are recordings that were made between 1928 and 1933. In that era you went from acoustic, cutting directly onto a black cylinder – I think it’s the best sound we’ve ever had.(Lastword: Paul McGuinness)

Q25: In your book you affectionately describe how your grandmother viewed you as her soulmate “the other musical spirit in the family” and how in a moment of eureka, you ultimately knew that you wanted to be a music producer. The foundation was laid during this time in both your musicianship and musical influences.

Growing up, how important do you think your musical influences and experiences were to the ‘instinct’ and ‘ear’ you developed for finding the ‘real’ artists?

JB: I think my early listening to my grandmother and subsequent obsession with blues and jazz was essential. When I hear any music now, I am listening in the context of countless hours of listening to timeless music. It gives me a better perspective on how it will sound to future generations. And in 1967, I probably had a wider range of listening experiences than most people in the industry, which I think allowed me to make more nuanced judgements about music I heard in clubs, or recording takes in studios.

Joe Boyd: Discovering & Nurturing the Essence of the Artist

Q26: Could you elaborate on this statement…and perhaps the others?

“I looked forward to being in the studio with Nick more than with any other artist.”

“After the abandoned tour he retreated to his room in Hampstead.”

“I proposed starting a new album. I had no idea what would emerge, but it was the only therapy at my disposal.”

“The Incredible String Band’s devotion to Scientology and refusal to listen to my advice, coupled with my arguments with Sandy, the growing recalcitrance of Fairport and Nick’s simple concept for his next album all combined to make me feel that everyone might be happier with me out of the way.”

JB: Certainly my involvement with Witchseason artists was intense. Everything was based on the assumption that there would be success – when it became clear that it was headed for more hard slog and meagre rewards, the Witchseason business model fell apart. In retrospect, I might have considered selling to island but staying on as producer etc. But I was too burnt out to see that clearly and was intrigued by the possibilities of learning about the film business.


+            +            +            +            +            +            +            +            +            +            +            +

Journeying through White Bicycles cover to cover, one can not help but take note of the fact that your role in the lives of so many of the bands and artists you worked with was not simply limited to being that of Record Producer, but also:-



Tour Manager

Stage Manager

Artist Manager

A&R / Talent Scout

Record Label owner



And so on…..

Clearly from the time your Grandmother accidentally gave you RCA’s Victor’s Encyclopaedia of Jazz, to when you and your friends (Warwick and Geoff) tracked down Lonnie Johnson and booked your first gig - your career has continued to resonate with the conviction and essence of that first experience.

“For me the experience meant more than just the music and the man: we had imagined something and made it happen so everyone could hear.”


(White Bicycles: Joe Boyd, 2006)



Joe Boyd: Today & Tomorrow


What next?

JB: A book about world music, maybe some radio work, maybe a documentary film.


"What a wonderful book! I was so engrossed I missed my train station. A gripping piece of social history and the best book about music I've read in years."
Brian Eno