Neil Young’s Studio Prowess Is More Than Meets the Ear

Country rock/grunge pioneer is also a committed audiophile

Neil Young Music For Screens
Dick Barnatt/Redferns

Ask a Neil Young fan to describe the keys to understanding his music, and one is likely to hear about his songwriting brilliance, his electric guitar heroics, his incisive views on the victories and failures of ’60s counterculture, and his sensitive evocations of pastoral landscapes and Native American myths.

One is far less likely to hear paeans to Neil Young the gearhead audiophile or studio perfectionist. Yet over the course of 50 years as a recording artist, Young has quietly proven himself one of rock’s most underrated studio masters.

“The media worship of Neil Young doesn’t really give enough kudos to the technical facilities and engineers that have aided him,” says longtime L.A rock journalist Harvey Kubernik, whose book “Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and Music of Laurel Canyon” explored the scene that informed Young’s early career. “Reprise Records let him make the kind of records he wanted to make. He had management that enforced that. And he got to use the best studios in town. It’s a huge component of his durability.”

Young’s memoir, “Waging Heavy Peace,” is filled with his appreciation for machines and engineering, be it cars, guitars, model trains or recording studios. Young speaks of such haunts as Los Angeles’ Gold Star Studios and Sunset Studios; producers Jack Nitzsche, David Briggs and Elliot Mazer; and Wally Heider Studios’ prized “Green Board” console — used to record Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” and the Monterey Pop Festival — with an awe that borders on the spiritual.

Young’s first recording session took place 50 years ago in July. Then 17 years old, Young with his band the Squires put in a one-day stand at Winnipeg, Canada, radio station CKRC. With station DJ Bob Bradburn doubling as record producer, the sessions yielded two singles released by local label V Records. It would be the last time Young worked in such Spartan environments.

The next time Young stepped into the studio, it was three years later in Los Angeles with his group Buffalo Springfield, recently signed to Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records, which ushered the group into Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica and Western.

“Ahmet had set up a situation where they weren’t constrained by the usual recording limitations,” says former Gold Star employee Kubernik. “They could make demos, they could experiment; they weren’t there to make a record in three days. And they walked into a studio where Phil Spector did all his legendary recording sessions. Gold Star had such a sense of legacy and history, custom-made echo chambers, one of the world’s best recording consoles.”

It was here that Young met former Spector accomplice Nitzsche, who would become the first of his indelible producer-mentors. The second, and perhaps most important, was David Briggs, who would have a hand in nearly all of Young’s most important solo recordings, from studio sessions to live albums, until his death in 1995.

Briggs wasn’t simply Young’s producer. Even more so than Buffalo Springfield bandmate Stephen Stills or his longtime Crazy Horse collaborators, Briggs was Young’s key co-conspirator, his bullshit detector, his super-ego. When Young left Laurel Canyon in the 1970s, he chose a new home literally within sight of Briggs’ Topanga Canyon house.

“He was the most influential person on my music of anyone I’ve met,” Young wrote of Briggs in his memoir. “David was usually right, and when I disagreed with him, I was usually wrong.”

While the Gold Star sessions with Buffalo Springfield opened up Young’s eyes to the importance of the studio, his second formative recording experience was less inspiring. Cutting his solo debut, “Neil Young,” in 1968, Young experimented with a raft of overdubs and studio trickery, mastering the record on the then-cutting edge Haeco-CSG system. The result was a muddled, poorly rendered mess that left Young disappointed.

For the follow-up, Young went back to basics. Recording with new group Crazy Horse, Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” not only established his career as a solo artist, but also went on to become one of the most sonically influential rock records of the decade. While the song structures and vocal harmonies still bore traces of Young’s L.A. rock heroes the Byrds, the swampy dropped-D riffing and intricate yet pointedly non-virtuosic soloing would prove incalculably influential on the Southern rock, grunge and alt-rock styles to come.

Americana singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham, who won an Oscar for his work on “Crazy Heart,” recalls how the rudimentary power of the album inspired him to learn the electric guitar after years dedicated solely to the acoustic. “The tones of Neil’s playing (on ‘Everybody’) just put me in the right headspace to understand the electric side,” he says. “I have a pretty simple approach to begin with, so I appreciated the way Neil could keep it in that vein, and how much impact he could have with a simple melody and simple guitar work.”

From then on, Young and Briggs were masters of their domain, and studio considerations meant more to their process than casual fans often acknowledge. The hushed, delicate sounds of 1992 “Harvest Moon” came about through necessity, as Young had blown out his hearing the previous year during the mixing process for his thunderous live album “Weld.” The country textures of 1972’s smash-hit “Harvest” were the result of Young simply being in Nashville for a taping of “The Johnny Cash Show,” and working with producer Elliot Mazer and a cast of local players at Quadrafonic Sound Studios during after-hours.

Briggs succinctly described his philosophy in an interview with Jimmy McDonough for his Young biography, “Shakey”: “You get a great sound at the source. Put the correct mic in front of the source, get it to tape the shortest possible route — that’s how you get a great sound. All other ways are work.”

Briggs and Young’s commitment to rawness, simplicity and painstaking fidelity remained steadfast throughout their career together, and they were frequently willing to test its limits. The quaking, flatulent guitar tones of 1979’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” were miles removed from the angelically pristine harmonies of “Helpless” and “Birds,” and the intentionally flub-laden abrasiveness of albums “Tonight’s the Night” and “Zuma” puzzled many critics and listeners accustomed to the poppier strains of “Heart of Gold.”

“You’ve got to remember that Neil’s great model was, and possibly remains, Bob Dylan,” says longtime Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn of Young’s inspiration for his potentially alienating moves. “One of my favorite Neil/Bob stories is that someone who once worked with Neil said when an idea was presented to him — especially something he didn’t particularly like — he’d say, ‘Would Bob Dylan do that?’ ”

Dylan would continue to cast a shadow over Young’s recorded output in the decades hence — Young teamed with “Time Out of Mind” producer Daniel Lanois for album “Le Noise,” and Dylan’s “Bootleg” releases are a clear model for Young’s ongoing archival projects — yet Young was always a more fastidious and adventurous studio creature than Dylan ever was, and he remains so today. While so many of his peers sing simple-minded praises to bygone technologies and vinyl, Young has hesitantly embraced next-gen music technology in his own particularly cantankerous way.

These days, Young makes records in a converted barn studio that he’s cheekily dubbed Pinewood Digital. He now owns Wally Heider’s “Green Board,” and runs the antique tube console directly into Pro Tools editing software on his computer. In recent years, he’s obsessively worked to develop and promote his signature digital music platform, dubbed Pono, which purports to transfer digital files into analog quality. It’s almost a perfect example of Young’s progressively old-school perfectionism — harnessing the height of technology to produce the simplest and purest of sounds.

“I see online streaming services like Rhapsody, Spotify and Pandora as the new radio,” Young wrote in his memoir. “This is all very good for music. The only thing missing is quality.

“Sound is very complex. It is not enough to just be able to recognize a song and hear the melody. There is a significant amount more to music than that.”