Insight into the recording of Back in Black from the engineer
There are guitar records, and then there are
guitar records, like AC/DC’s Back in Black.
Boasting worldwide sales of almost 50 million
units, Back in Black has inspired countless
fans with its raw, in-your-face attitude and
classic guitar licks.
Engineer Tony Platt manned the board for that album, and along with legendary producer Mutt Lange, helped capture the tones that would launch a thousand guitar lessons. After running into Platt at the famed Electric Lady Studios in New York City, and sharing some equally famous New York pizza afterwards, I caught up with him from his home in England to talk about this memorable project.
Did the band track the songs live?
Yes, absolutely. On Highway To Hell, there were quite a few guitars overdubbed. But with this record, there was an intention to do it as live as possible. So all the songs were tracked with Angus [Young, lead guitar], Malcolm [Young, rhythm guitar], bass, and drums. On a few occasions we may have dropped in a chord or so on a great take.
What mics did you use on the guitars?
They were Neumann U 67s and U 87s. That’s the point I start from with guitars. We used two per guitar and mostly used one cabinet for each amp. They would be on different speakers, which lets you spread the image and get more depth.
So how did you pan them?
Changing the panning could quite dramatically change the focus of the mix. One of the mics— it could be either one—would be hard left or right, and the other might be just slightly left or right of center, but sometimes would be the opposite side of the other. So the guitar on the left would be at 7 and 1 o’clock and the other would be at 5 and 11 o’clock.
All Marshall amps?
Yes, and I did a lot of research into what makes those sound like they do. The best combination for me was some of the older 50- and 100-watt heads with the simplest tone controls.
More important were the cabinets, and I feel the sloped ones sound different from the straight ones. The sloped ones are more for cosmetics, are a little tighter, but you don’t get the same bass response because they are smaller. I also noticed that the 50-watt speakers with a 100-watt head changed the cabinet rating, and you weren’t crunching as much as with the 35-watt speakers.
The guitar is very much a part of the whole package. You turn an amp up until the guitar starts to sing. That will, of course, be different for every guitar you use, but that’s what we did. We had a nice selection of heads and speakers and we mixed and matched from song to song.
Most of it was done at Compass Point studios?
Yes, only some solo overdubs at Electric Lady. At Compass Point, we would do the basics and get some vocals on. Then Angus would do his solo, and that was a completely different setup.
We ran his rig wireless, so I had different setups in different rooms. There was a liveish room down at the end of the studio and another setup in the main room. We just kind of blended the sound together in different combinations. He always felt more natural using a wireless, but in New York we didn’t have the wireless setup, so we had to try to match a few sounds.
The wireless has filtering in it, and it added quite an edge in the middle area. We had to tweak it a little to try and match, but I was always aware that it wasn’t quite the same sound.
How about any effects?
No, the guys never liked using too much reverb, echo, or effects of any description, so I tried to use ambiance as much as possible to lift the sound.
There’s a tiny bit of delay in the mix, which we used to spread the guitars even further. It’s very hidden and way in the background. Sometimes it just helped to increase the distance between the two mics. Angus and Malcolm basically play in unison, just in different positions. It sounds like one very big guitar, really.
I know it’s kind of a cliché, but what they do is as good as it can get. What I needed to do was just make sure I captured what they do. That was the most important part of the whole process, as far as I was concerned.
How about recording that famous bell on “Hells Bells?”
I flew from Nassau back to the UK with the intention of recording a bell from the people making the one that was going out on the tour. There was one in a bell tower, and it was one ton in weight. So we took the Rolling Stones Mobile [studio] to this bell tower, set up the mics and struck it. But when we did, the birds living there all took off. By the time it stopped, they’d all come back! So I abandoned that session.
But I went to the bell foundry with Ronnie Lane’s Mobile, in an Airstream Caravan, and backed it in. The bell was out of the cast, and the tuning was within a few cents of being spot on. The guy that made the bell hit it, and we captured it on a multitrack. We mixed the best mics onto 1/4" tape, and Mutt, who had a background in editing, and I dropped them in there one by one.
Looking back, what are your thoughts on Back in Black?
I’m proud of that record. I consider myself fortunate to record something that good, and it’s a combination of so many circumstances. Whenever I hear it, there’s a tinge of pride. When you’ve had the opportunity to do something right, and you have, it stays with you.
Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy-nominated engineer and mixer who has worked with artists ranging from Al DiMeola to David Bowie. A life-long guitarist, he’s also the author of Pro Tools Surround Sound Mixing and composes for the likes of Fox NFL, Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon, and HBO.