Photo Credit: Warner Music Group
Van Halen engineer Donn Landee’s first interview in decades!
Renowned engineer Donn Landee recently shared some “behind the boards” stories about the recording of Van Halen’s classic first album at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound Studios in 1978, in a conversation with author Greg Renoff.
Below is an excerpt from part one of Renoff’s two-part interview posted to the Tape Op magazine website:
Donn Landee’s lengthy discography is a testament to his versatility and skill as an engineer. Landee worked for T.T.G. Studios and Sunwest Recording Studios in Hollywood before he became a staff engineer for Warner Bros. Records in 1971. Best known for his collaborations with Van Halen and The Doobie Brothers, Landee also logged studio time with artists like Eric Burdon and the Animals, Chet Baker, John Sebastian, The Doors, The Everly Brothers, Jackie DeShannon, Van Morrison, Little Feat, Arlo Guthrie, Montrose, Maria Muldaur, and Carly Simon. More often than not Landee recorded, mixed, and mastered the albums he worked on in the studio. During his three-decade career, he engineered three Billboard #1 hits: The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” (1975), “What a Fool Believes” (1979), and Van Halen’s “Jump” (1984). He also tracked three Billboard #1 albums: The Doobie Brothers’ Minute by Minute (1979), and Van Halen’s 5150 (1986) and OU812 (1988). This conversation centers on Landee’s early years, particularly his work in the 1960s, and we plan to have a “part two” chat coming up soon!
I recall you telling me that when you recorded the first Van Halen album [Van Halen], [engineer] Kent [Nebergall] specially decorated Sunset 2’s control room.
He had a Star Wars X-wing toy. He brought it in, hung it up, and said, “This belongs here, believe me, because these are two greatest things I’ve ever experienced: Van Halen and Star Wars!” It was hanging from the ceiling, right between the two monitors in Studio 2, for all the time we recorded Van Halen. I loved working with Kent.
Ted told me that you guys never considered doing the first Van Halen album at Amigo [Studios in Los Angeles].
That’s true. We were comfortable at Sunset. We’d been working there off and on for three or four years. It seemed like we worked at Sunset every day.
Were Ed and Al vocal about things when you and Ted did the first album with them? I have read interviews with Alex Van Halen where he says Van Halen didn’t end up sounding like he expected.
They were extremely quiet. We didn’t hear anything about [the sound of the album] until well after Van Halen was out. They were disappointed; it’s not what they had in their mind when they came in to do the record. But Al told me we got it [right] later on. What we got on tape for 1984 was much more to his liking.
I think Mike Anthony [bass, backing vocals] said something along the lines of, “When we got in the studio with Ted and Donn, we were happy because we wanted Van Halen to sound like Montrose.”
The Montrose and Van Halen debuts sound really very different. With Montrose, we did overdubs. We would do two or three [tracks] of Ronnie’s guitars. With Van Halen, they played it and we were done. That’s the way most of that first album [was recorded]. There are some songs that have some [guitar] overdubs, but not many. We did the Van Halen albums on 24-track, but we could have done them on 16-track. I don’t think we ever filled up the tracks. That’s the reason why when we built 5150 for [recording] 1984, I did not buy a 24-track. We went with a 16-track machine.
There’s a lot of mystique around the making of the first Van Halen record, especially in regard to Sunset Sound’s echo chambers. Is the original Sunset Sound echo chamber, the one in Studio 1, the one you mostly used?
At one time or another, I’m sure we used every reverb system that Sunset had for Van Halen. But, generally, it was the Studio 1 live chamber or the spring reverb in Studio 2. If possible, I used the chamber in Sunset 1. I liked that one the best. It’s unique. The second best, which was more of a standard chamber, was the one for Studio 2. There was also an AKG BX20 spring reverb system at Sunset. Spring echoes are usually cheap-sounding. For instance, a Fender Reverb amplifier has a little spring reverb in it. You know, you kick the amplifier, and it goes boing! The BX20 didn’t sound anything like that. AKG had perfected it. We used it on most of The Doobie Brothers’ records that we did at Sunset, including songs like “Echoes of Love” and the other things we did on Livin’ on the Fault Line. Also, Little Feat’s Time Loves a Hero was done with this same spring system. At Amigo, we had one good live chamber. I used it a lot. Most of The Doobie Brothers records were done at Amigo, and we used that live chamber there.
Boxed Set Introduces Four Newly Remastered VH Studio Albums With Sammy Hagar, Plus Rarities Recorded Between 1989 And 2004
5-LP And 5-CD Versions Arriving On October 6
Van Halen will release a new boxed set NEXT WEEK spotlighting the band’s second incarnation, with singer Sammy Hagar, guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen, and bassist Michael Anthony. The upcoming set includes newly remastered versions of four multi-platinum studio albums, along with a selection of rarities recorded between 1989 and 2004.
THE COLLECTION II will be available on October 6th on 5 Vinyl 180-Gram LPs for $124.98 and 5 CDs for $49.98. Pre-order both versions HERE. All the music in the set was mastered directly from the original master tapes, a process overseen by the band’s longtime engineer, Donn Landee.
THE COLLECTION II covers the four consecutive #1 albums released during the Hagar era: 5150 (1986), OU812 (1988), For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991), and Balance (1995).
Michael Anthony: “So excited about our Sammy era box set coming to ya!! Our longtime studio engineer DONN LANDEE remastered these albums, and they are kicking ASS!!”