Continuing to review some of MIMO’s more intriguing posts from the past year…back in September, industry veteran Tim Palmer gave our writer Jonathan Trask a remarkably insightful interview, with very useful information for those folks who might be interested in the recording industry in general. Originally posted in two parts, we thought we’d repost it as a single article here for your enjoyment. –Ed.
Tim Palmer is one of those music industry pros whose name you might not have heard, but you have almost certainly heard his handiwork. His career as a music producer, mixer and audio engineer spans over three decades, and his album credits include U2, Ozzy Osbourne, Faith Hill, INXS, Pearl Jam, Goo Goo Dolls, Tears for Fears, Ryan Cabrera, Switchfoot, and a host of others. Remember the Cutting Crew hit from the ‘80s, “Died In Your Arms Tonight?” Tim Palmer mixed it. How about David Bowie’s album Tin Machine? Palmer produced it. In fact, if you were to check the record credits on the favorite records in your collection, chances are good you’ll find Tim Palmer’s name several times.
Tim started his career in the UK, but these days he operates out of Austin, TX. Tim was gracious enough to answer a few interview questions for us. In fact, his answers to our questions were so insightful, we decided to do as little editing as possible, and let you read his words for yourself.
MIMO: How did you wind up having a career in the music industry? Specifically, how did you learn to produce?
TP: At about 16, all I loved was music and playing guitar. I was also avidly collecting punk records, and forming a band. It was an amazing time for music, I got to see some amazing shows, The Clash, Buzzcocks, Gang of Four, The Damned, The Psychedelic Furs, Teardrop Explodes just to name a few. When I headed into a local studio to cut our first demo, it was the first time that I witnessed what goes on inside a recording studio and from that moment on I knew that making music was what I wanted to do. As it turned out, my destiny became more about helping others, rather than playing the music myself, but it has been just as rewarding.
I got my first job at a studio called Utopia, right in the center of London. It was back in the glory days of recording, when artists of the caliber of Sting or Stevie Wonder would just book in and were happy to use the engineer that was assigned to the session. There was a degree of luck involved, but I was fortunate enough to be put on some great sessions and get the opportunity to make an impression. I slowly began to work with, and build a roster of, some great clients.
A good assistant had to be keen, enthusiastic, happy to make tea/coffee/get the food orders and efficient at operating the tape machine. Being fast and good at ‘dropping in’ on that tape machine was enough to get you requested on sessions. (‘Dropping in’ or ‘punching in’ is putting the tape machine into and out of record at a specific place in a song.) Sometimes a producer may request that you ‘drop in’ on a single syllable of a word or tiny section of a guitar part, so if you were not quick enough, you could potentially screw up and erase important parts of a song. This gave a sense of excitement to a session that I feel is lost today.
So ultimately I learnt my craft more as an apprentice, than as a student in a recording school (I don’t even think they had them back then). I got to learn from some amazing engineers who passed through the studio. You could decide what you liked, and what you didn’t like, about the way they made records. It’s a great way to learn. Basically, ‘mentor-based’ recording schools like The Recording Connection are now using this method.
MIMO: What would you say is your favorite part of your job? What do you like most about it?
TP: I guess my favorite part of the job changes according to the gig. Sometimes getting a mix sounding great and then the band loving it is very rewarding. Watching a great player lay down a great guitar part or a drum track is incredible. Just hanging out with the band and having a laugh is pretty fun, too. I have a different experience with every project I tackle. I learn something new from every situation that I get involved in. It’s very rewarding when you succeed in helping an artist reach his vision, and seeing the music soar high in the chart is an obvious bonus.
MIMO: What recording projects do you currently have on the burner?
TP: Since the big ‘change’ in the industry, the Internet is playing a huge part in my career. Aside from the traditional paths, I am now regularly approached to work on projects that are based so far away from Austin, Texas, that before they would never have been an option. Now I can be mixing for great artists from literally anywhere around the globe. I just finished mixing a band called Indus Creed from Mumbai. They are a huge prog-rock band from India that are super talented. I am very proud of the album. Recently I mixed a super cool band called ‘Quiet Company’ who are from Austin. Their album We Are All Where We Belong just won 10 Austin music awards. Lyrically it’s a very interesting album, keep a look out for that one! Coming up, I am mixing in 5:1 at my ’62 Studios for Tarja Turunen, and later this year I am producing an album for The Polyphonic Spree and a new alternative band called Courier.
MIMO: You’ve been involved at some level with SXSW in Austin the past couple of years. In what ways were you involved this year, and how do you think the festival went overall?
TP: SXSW is always a lot of fun. I have moderated producer panels there for 3 years now. I have had the chance to meet some great new, and some very established music makers. This year I tried something simpler; I wanted the conversation to be looser and give the actual producers a real opportunity to ask each other the questions they have always wanted to ask about their individual careers. It went really well, and the audience seemed very interested and asked some good questions.
MIMO: What advice do you have for others who want to break into the music business as a producer or engineer?
TP: Question your motives first. Make sure you want to be a producer or mixer because you absolutely love making music! This is not a safe, sensible career path, and the chances of making lots of money at it are slim. But if you enjoy it as much as I do, It’s not really a job at all, it’s just great fun.