How U2’s Joshua Tree Was Recorded
Award-winning UK-based sound engineer Andy Munro shares studio notes from his time spent with some of the world’s most famous bands
It started with delivering a few microphones to Led Zeppelin’s rehearsal studio in London back in the Sixties – Andy Munro was still at university then, studying mechanical engineering and working part time at a hi-fi store. Once he got talking to Led Zep and their sound crew, he was fascinated by the world of sound design. In his career, which spans over four decades, Munro has designed studios for some of the biggest international artists including AR Rahman, U2, The Rolling Stones, Coldplay and Sting.
Besides designing private studios, Munro and his company, Munro Acoustics, have been involved in setting up the sound at some of the best clubs around the world including the Blue Frog in Mumbai. The sound designer reinvented studio sound with the recently-released sE Munro Egg 150 Monitoring System, so it’s no surprise that he has several awards to his name including the Indian Recording Arts [IRA] award for Global Innovation in Studio Design, presented to him at the PALM Expo in Mumbai last month.
In an interview with ROLLING STONE India, Munro talks about studios that were built much before his career took off, such as the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, and regardless of declining album sales, how studios will always remain the backbone of the music industry.
Tell us about Windmill Lane Studios and your involvement with it? Was The Edge tough to please?
Windmill Lane was one of those great, iconic studios and it is inextricably linked with U2 for many reasons that are linked to life in Dublin. I got involved in the early Eighties when the studio was in need of some acoustic upgrades and then U2 demanded a bigger room to record The Joshua Tree album. We built a new recording room that was very lively and upgraded the control room for more equipment and better monitoring. I remember a meeting with the band and producer Daniel Lanois prior to the building work and I was made to understand that this was in no way going to be anything but the most brilliant studio. No pressure then! In more recent times, I worked with Edge to design a new studio for U2 as their own place, not Windmill Lane, was scheduled for redevelopment. That project got canceled due to the financial crash in Ireland and everywhere else so we quickly put up a new studio room in the old building and away they went with another big album. I remember going over to New York to speak to the band in between massive shows at Madison Square Garden and everything was a bit mad at the time with banks crashing, but the gigs would have sold out 10 times over.
Is the guitarist usually the most demanding (and annoying) band member that a sound designer has to deal with?
Not at all! The drummer is by far the most difficult person to pin down and to keep in time. The miking and recording of the drums was usually what takes the longest time – that and croaking singers. The best I ever saw was John Bonham and his live rig with sound company Showco and Shure. It was the first time I experienced standing on a stage in front of 50,000 fans, just before the band rolled up.
Why did everybody from Bob Dylan to The Rolling Stones to Willie Nelson flock to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio? What made it so legendary?
There was a decade from about 1968 to 1979 when all albums of note were recorded in studios with relatively little equipment and not that many tracks. During that period, studios made recordings using few microphones and everyone played together more or less as a live stage show. Time was expensive and editing was a tricky and delicate job with a razor blade! That meant everyone worked hard to get the sound right before it went to tape. Gradually, the mixing consoles got bigger and the tape machines made more tracks and then Dolby noise reduction became necessary and studios got deader because there were so many mics to separate. Muscle Shoals caught the bow wave of the best of this analog sound and they had really tight, experienced musicians on board, so for bands like the Rolling Stones it was as close to Keith’s idea of heaven as you could get. There were many such studios in the U.S. but the best had consoles built in England by my friend Rupert Neve, who is still working today, with a little help from the guys at RND in Texas. Abbey Road in London had custom built EMI consoles and the one that recorded Dark Side of the Moon is now in the hands of legendary producer Mike Hedges, another good mate of mine.
What is your take on such historic studios shutting down? Is this because there are too many to choose from now or is it because some studios don’t upgrade themselves?
Unfortunately, the economics of the recording industry just don’t allow for labor-intensive, stand-alone studios with lots of overhead. I worked in London studios in 1980, when the rates were £400 to £600 per day. By rights, that should be 10 times more today but rates are actually lower in most cases! Property is 20 or 30 times more that in London and New York, so it is almost impossible to make a business model that works. Fortunately, equipment is a lot less expensive now so many studios can survive in small places with minimal overhead but the sound suffers as a consequence. Of course, there are quite a few great studios still working and classic gear is being recycled all the time so the legend will never die!
Many artists record a lot of their music in lo-fi home studios and release them online – will studios become redundant for independent artists?
No way! As soon as anyone makes any money, they head for better studios and producers who can work the magic. I was working with XL Recordings recently and they offer vintage equipment and facilities for their artists to work with. Lo Fi studios can produce remarkable results but electronics and digital processing is never going to replace completely those natural sounding rooms and that fat, unprocessed, raw sound that is rock and roll.
What do you think of the resurgence of vinyl and the growing appreciation for the sound from the vinyl era?
It’s the way to go for anyone interested in real audio. It takes time, money and effort to make vinyl sound perfect, but the result can be stunning. I still have every record I ever bought and I looked after them so I have a huge back catalog to enjoy. I also enjoy CDs when well produced so I am not anti-digital, just anti crappy sound. I started in this business with Shure, who made the best mics and HiFi pickups in the Seventies so I guess I was very lucky to have landed that job. Working with the Stones and Zeppelin came out of that and I learned so much from their crews and technical people.
Did you ever step into The Stones’ mobile studio? What did you think of the albums recorded inside that studio? Tell us about the studio you set up with them. Did Keith have a lot of inputs?
The Stones Mobile has more history than most fixed studios. The whole thing was developed to allow the band to record at their various country houses but it soon got hijacked by other musicians and touring groups to capture their live performances. The sound was captured with a unique Helios console that was built in two layers to fit more channels in the narrow truck. It shared its pedigree with the desk at Olympic Studios where Eddie Kramer recorded Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and again, we are talking about the great British designers of analog electronics. The truck was engineered and managed by Mick McKenna, who I first met when working for Shure in 1974 and we have been friends ever since – he still spends much of his time sifting through the hundreds of two inch tapes that were recorded by the Stones over 20 years. Apart from Led Zeppelin, one of the most interesting albums to be recorded live was Dire Straits’ Alchemy in 1983. This was a period of transition to digital recording and Mick McKenna was converting the truck to house two 3M 24 tracks so he could overlap tapes and not miss a moment’s performance. As a side line the previous Dire Strait’s album was recorded for vinyl but its HiFi dynamic helped to boost the popularity of CD and this pushed the recording industry into some very expensive investment in digital multitrack recording. Little did we know that a $500,000 investment in the Eighties would be replaced by a laptop and sound card!
AR Rahman once mentioned in an interview that he wanted his music to sound good across all platforms be it an MP3 player, an iPhone or in the theater – how much can the acoustics of the studio contribute to this and how much is this dependent on mixing?
I like a studio to sound like a concert hall but that is because nothing can compare with the sound of the real thing. I realized very early in my career that what happens in a studio has a degrading effect on the original sound but that can be minimized by great acoustics and the right mics and equipment. Data compression is a necessary evil but I believe there are ways to do lossless compression that are much better than MP3. MPEG4 is also very good.
Too much audio compression is used these days and everything is squeezed into a dynamic between 90 and 100 percent. That makes the mix loud but then radio and iTunes ends up reducing the level to match ‘normal’ recordings so they can actually end up being played quieter. I know compression using soft analog devices can be enhancing but brutal digital ‘brick wall’ limiter and other devices is killing music in my humble opinion.
Have the Munro Eggs made it to any Indian studios?
There are a few around but it is early days for the company and its distribution is building steadily. We sold a thousand systems in the first year, almost all in Europe and the USA. Watch this space for a Mark 2 coming shortly. The Egg is a very accurate speaker that actually sounds good at home so we intend to use it for home installations this year.
Which is the best album you’ve heard recently that came out of a studio you designed?
That’s a tough question as there are so many aspects to music. How do you compare Metallica with the London Symphony Orchestra? The recent album 21 by Adele and her “Skyfall” track for the Bond movie sound great and Sphere Studios played its part in that. We are currently moving the studio to LA so expect some great American tracks soon!
Name another that was released by a studio that you weren’t involved with.
I have always loved the classic American albums like Graceland by Paul Simon and bands like Steely Dan with their perfect studio sound.
What is the most exciting aspect of your role at Munro Acoustics today?
I think it’s getting to grips with new ideas in design and materials. Architecture is at an amazing place right now and I want to move in the same direction with acoustics. Designing a concert hall is the biggest challenge and I intend to design an opera house before I die!
What kind of audio set up do you have at home?
Right now, I am testing Egg systems so that is my home system. I recently invested in a new digital projector so I am experimenting with cinema sound right now with 12 speakers. Fortunately, I have my own studio so there are no domestic issues with that!
Finally, what earphones do you use?
I use Bose and Sony noise-canceling phones for travel as background noise is a real music killer. Since MP3 music is reduced in quality, there is no point in a big investment and I always listen on speakers if I want quality. For in-ear listening I use Shure for recording as I don’t like heavy cans if I am working. I urge everyone to ditch cheap ear wear and invest in good quality speakers!