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Stanley Johnston on keeping the mix alive

Stanley Johnston has worked with Crosby Stills & Nash for more than thirty years on the live side as well as in the studio. He reveals to Paul Watson that understanding both applications makes for the perfect engineer...

Los Angeles-based Stanley Johnston has flown the faders for Crosby Stills & Nash (CS&N) for more than three-and-a-half decades, both in the live and studio environments. Johnston explains to Paul Watson how building a knowledge on both ‘very different beasts’ can be crucial in getting the best results… Your relationship with CS&N stretches back to the mid-seventies… I first got involved with CS&N in 1974. It was with Graham Nash initially, and then over the years I worked on and off with them. I was exclusively with them for years doing various albums and live projects and then I went off doing other projects in film and TV for a while, and then in the last four or five years I have been doing some more stuff with the guys, so it’s nice; I get it all, right now, which is fantastic. You came to London last year to work with the band on their Hard Rock Calling performance in Hyde Park… Yes. I flew over to help them record the live show, get the live mix right and get all the fixes done. Basically there was more than enough sound going on with them that weekend that was going to prove too much for two people to handle. They decided that a third hand would be good; and it’s such an excellent event. And you’ve been helping out with some techniques on the live side? Yeah. Last year the band decided to make their FOH sound a bit bigger, so I helped put that together. They have a guy at FOH mixing for them at the moment that’s just spectacular – a Scotsman named Kevin Madigan; and he’s tremendous, so they’re feeling much more like a big rock and roll band now, which is really what they’re about. Almost cut my hair, Long time gone, and songs like that really need to be big and now they are, which is great. The fact that you’ve helped both the live side and the studio side of their careers is somewhat unique. Some people say they’re two different beasts – do you think that’s the case? I think if you have live experience you can become a really great studio engineer and I think if you’re a studio engineer you’re going to be a better live engineer. Standing out in the middle with 30,000 or more people means you get an immediate response when the band does something that emotionally gets the audience going; and you know when your mix is right and the crowd reacts to something musically that’s going on that they love, so if you do enough live mixing you start to get that emotional excitement inbred in your head – you can’t get away from it. When you’re in the studio and there’s nobody there but you and a couple of band members, you have to kind of say ‘OK this record needs to be exciting like a live show’; and that is different – it’s a studio constructed record, but you bring that kind of perspective into the studio. It’s the same thing with mixing film – film has a story arc and it goes from scene to scene and you have that excitement. You want to project yourself as if you were in the theatre watching the movie and it gets exciting, then it gets sad, then it gets happy. It’s the same as live music; there are moments when it gets very tender and very intimate – when it’s one person and a guitar singing words that everybody has to hear and they sing them in such a way that it really touches your heart and you think they’re singing just to you; that’s the great performers. And then there are the songs with three guitars going full blast and drums going off, you know, on ten! [Laughs] And that’s important to understand and make it feel great too. So they really do compliment each other then? Well, I think not everybody can make that shift – but I know a lot of people that do it and I really think it makes better live shows and makes better records. And did you manage to work some magic and get more kick out of the band? [Laughs] Absolutely! Kevin is a spectacular FOH mixer, and easy to work with; and although it’s a bit terrorising putting yourself out there as an engineer in front of 85,000 people – especially those fifteen seconds before the house music stops – it should also be one of your most treasured moments as a live engineer.