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August Issue
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Studio Legends: Keith Olsen

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Studio Legends: Keith Olsen

Recording at Paul Bonrud’s studio in Seattle. Photo courtesy Keith Olsen

With over 200 album-engineering and/or production credits to his name—and 39 of them have been certified gold, 24 went platinum, and 14 went multiplatinum—it’s no stretch to say Keith Olsen has helped define the sound of modern music. On top of that, he’s won six Grammy awards, sold more than 110 million records, become a trustee of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the Grammy people), designed music gear, written books, and worked as a recording and touring musician.

Born in South Dakota and raised in the Minneapolis area, Olsen started his career as a musician but before long was hired as an independent staff producer for music-industry mogul Clive Davis (who, among others, was responsible for signing acts as huge as Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, and Earth, Wind & Fire). Olsen went on to become a major force in recorded music in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, recording with everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Foreigner, Whitesnake, Pat Benatar, Joe Walsh, Santana, the Grateful Dead, and Ozzy Osbourne. He also achieved incredible success in the film world, producing soundtracks for the hits Footloose, Top Gun, Flashdance, and Tron.

What’s your background as a musician—you’re primarily a bassist, right?
I was actually a cellist. I was a bad acoustic guitar player, a bad piano player, a bad bass player … anything I could get my hands on that I could play and learn a little bit about. But I knew that I liked music. I liked the theoretical aspects of it.

Did you have formal training?
Yes, kind of. I took private lessons from this guy who was just a stunningly good concert pianist who taught me a lot about theory and had me really going into the classics as a place to draw from. Then I became a music-ed major at the University of Minnesota, but I got drawn by the road—“C’mon, go out and play!”

While you were playing in folk bands, you rubbed elbows with people who went on to big things—for example, sharing bills with future members of the Mamas & the Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful—and then you switched over to a rock band called the Music Machine. How did you end up moving into the production side of things?
While I was in the Music Machine, I kept finding these bands that were opening for us. I found this band called Eternity’s Children and we recorded their stuff. I was the producer and arranger and engineer. We had a hit called “Mrs. Bluebird.”

How did you meet your future producing partner Curt Boettcher and connect with Clive Davis?
I met Curt back at the University of Minnesota. He told me, “Hey I got this deal with this guy and I can go into the studio anytime I want.” My eyes lit up and I said, “Hey, why don’t we do stuff together?” So we went in and worked on “Along Comes Mary” and “Cherish” [with folk-rock band the Association], and we worked with Tommy Roe on “Sweet Pea” and “Hoorah for Hazel” [which became Top 40 hits in 1968].

Then Clive started hearing all this stuff by these two kids that were doing things differently, twisting knobs. A lot of record producers back then were “stopwatchers” and budget minders, period. Clive was interested in people who wanted to push the envelope. We met with him and he said, “I want you to be my independent staff producers,” because if we kept our independent status we could go to other studios. We weren’t tied into the CBS union contract that the studios had with the IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers].

We did the Millennium album [1968’s Begin]—the first 16-track recording ever. We had to figure out how to lock two 8-track tape machines together to do it. It was kind of a turntable hit. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic gave me a shot at mixing a record with Aretha Franklin—her live album that was recorded out at a church in Watts. From there I got work with Mac Rebennack—Dr. John—and then started doing other things.

How did you find Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks?
They were in a band and their booking agent called all the A-list producers, and none of them wanted to go to San Jose to see this band named Fritz. He called the B-list producers. He called the C-list guys. Then he called the D-list guys, which was me and a couple of other guys, and I said, “A free trip to San Jose? Sure! I’ll go up and see them.”

I was picked up by Lindsey and their drummer in a van that had no seats in it. I sat in the back with the drum kit and the amps. When we got out of the van, he turned to me and said, “Well, help us set up!” [Laughs.] It was Lindsey and Stevie singing, and Lindsey was the bass player. The next weekend, I got them in the studio to cut a demo and I realized all the [other] members of the band were just average and Lindsey and Stevie were so special. So I said, “Let’s try to do a duo.” And they said, “No, no, no, we want to be a band, we want to be a band.”

Then Lindsey got mononucleosis and Fritz broke up because he was flat on his back for three or four months. So he started playing acoustic guitar, but he didn’t have enough energy to strum it. He could only lay his arm on it and do that flamenco kind of shot. Now think about the style that Lindsey plays—that’s how it happened.


Keith Olsen with Ozzy Osbourne at Goodnight L.A. Studios in Los Angeles during the cutting of No Rest for the Wicked. Photo courtesy Keith Olsen

How did that lead to Lindsey joining Fleetwood Mac?
I had signed on to co-produce with Fleetwood Mac and engineer their album after Bare Trees. How I made the deal to do it was I played [Mick Fleetwood] three tracks of the finished Buckingham-Nicks record, one off an Emitt Rhodes record, and one thing from Aretha Franklin. He said, “Wow, this is really great.” So we made a deal to do it. Then I got a call on New Year’s Eve, and Mick says, “I’ve had some bad news. Bob Welch just decided to leave the band. So, that fellow in that band you played me—would you see if that guy would like to join my band?” And I said, “Well, they’re going to come as a set. Because they’re very much into their own thing, and the only chance of getting them to drop that would be to bring them both on.” And he says, “Well, maybe that will work. Can you see if you can convince them to join my band?”

So I drop what I was going to do on that New Year’s Eve, take my date, and we drive over to Stevie and Lindsey’s house. I said, “Hey, Happy New Year” and all of this—I brought over the obligatory bottle of bad champagne—and I said, “Can we talk? Mick Fleetwood would like you to join Fleetwood Mac.” Immediately, Lindsey said, “Oh, no, no—I couldn’t possibly play anything as good as Peter Green did. How am I supposed to get up there and play ‘The Green Manalishi’?” Finally I get them, by the end of the night, to try it on a trial basis for eight weeks.

They started rehearsing with Mick and John and Christine [McVie], and they found they had a really neat sound together. Then when we got into the studio, it was totally unique. It was not like Bare Trees—it was not like anything else Fleetwood Mac had done. In fact, John came up to me and said, “Keith, you know, we used to be a blues band.” [I said,] “Yeah, I know, John. But it’s a lot shorter drive down to this bank.” [Laughs.] Because he knew we were commercial. But it was unique—it was the right thing—and halfway through that album, we knew. We knew.

Let’s talk about your approach to recording guitar.
Get a great guitar player, get a great-sounding amp, turn it up. [Laughs.] If you’re recording electric guitar, find that point on one of the speakers where you get the highest frequency, and place the mic there. [See the sidebar “Olsen’s ‘Shavering’ Cab-Mic’ing Technique” on p.148 for more on this.] I was doing a seminar once with guys from Shure, and I said, “Okay, put the mic where you think it should go on that 4x12 out there.” Then I had the guy play guitar. I said, “Okay, play a riff. You got the riff? Record it. Okay, now, don’t change anything. Just unplug your guitar from the amp.” I walked out in the room with headphones on and just moved the mic about an inch and a half by listening to the hiss coming back as the mic moved from the edge of the cone [whistles an ascending pitch], right around where the edge of the voice coil was. Then I moved it around the voice coil and I heard it change to the highest hiss. I just put a little X on that speaker and I put the ’57 right there. Then I said, “Don’t change any settings anywhere, inside or outside. Now just plug in and play the same riff.” He played the same riff and we went back to back, A to B, and I’ve never seen so many mouths drop open at the same time like that.

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