Fame, for most artists, is short-lived.
When stars come and go, a core network of lyricists, producers, crew members and musicians persists through the decades, typically unseen, giving support from one fresh face to the next.
Errol Brown is a sound engineer who, within the industry, carries much name recognition. Born in Jamaica, he has worked predominantly in reggae music since the '70s. He's won two Grammys and has produced music for and toured with a guy named Bob Marley.
We were able to catch up with Brown before he headed out to Lollapalooza this past weekend and chatted about how music has changed since Bob.
Up on the Sun: Describe what you do.
I'm sound recording and mixing engineer /producer
When did you start getting into sound engineering? Who trained you? I started in the business in the early '70s at my uncle's studio Treasure Isle Recording Studio. His name was Duke Reid. [I] started training by an engineer named Byron Smith, and completed training by my uncle Duke Reid, which was a serious drilling. It wasn't easy.
How was sound engineering different when you started, compared to now?
Well, when I started it was really hard because you have to record everyone one time, it's like mixing a song now, the balance had to be accurate, because those days the recording machine was one track, then two tracks, then four tracks, then eight tracks, then 16 tracks, then 24 tracks, then 48 tracks, now unlimited tracks. No fixing or correcting when I started, unlike today's world, [where] every instrument is on a separate track, so you can take out, or replace, any mistake. I know it is strange, but I love the digital world we are in today. The sound - it's just perfect, no tape hiss, no scratchy records, so better separation. What you record is what you hear when you play back. In the early days I would have to align the tape machines to get the best quality, and don't care how perfect you aligned these machines, the bass drum and the bass guitar would come back very heavy, I personally didn't like that. I always want to get back the sound I put on tape, I know the American engineers love that, always talking about warmth you get from tape, that you don't get from the digital world, but it definitely don't bother me. Love It! Hahaha.
Did you embrace the digital take over when it happened?
I was scared, but my son Shane Brown ask me "so daddy what you are going to do, retire early?" I couldn't answer, I just laugh. So I then challenged it, and there goes, conquered It.
When did you start working for Bob Marley?
I started working for Bob Marley 1979 after I left Treasure Isle Studios.
Do you remember the first time you met him?
I definitely remember, in the record shop at 56 Hope Road [in Kingston, Jamaica, now the Bob Marley Museum]. It was really Marcia Griffiths [who] took me there; I was her personal engineer in those days.
What was your first impression?
Well I wasn't scared, because I was and still not starstruck. It was just like meeting a regular person, and that's the way he was, in any case. What got me frightened was when he took me in the studio and lifted off the cover off the MCI Recording and Mixing Console/ It was really frightening. Imagine, I'm coming off a very simple 12-channel console and buck up this [36-channel] state-of-the-art console. I didn't know if I could do it, but I got brave and challenged and conquered it.
How did your professional relationship with Bob Marley and the Wailers happen?
Marcia Griffiths usually bragged about her engineer to them, and he told her he wanted to meet me, so that's how it happened. Although he really met me at Treasure Isle Studio when Peter Tosh rented the studio to do the Legalize It album with The Wailers. He was there with Peter through the recording, so I guess he was listening from them.
Which albums did you work on with Bob?
The first album at Tuff Gong Studios was [Bob Marley and the Wailers' 1979 album] Survival. I was assistant engineer to Alex Sadkin (of course I learned a lot from him). Then the next album, Uprising , I recorded and mixed. Confrontation recorded, mixed and produced along with Bob Marley and The Wailers, Legend was a mixture of some of my mixes.
Were there any songs you worked on, that while you were making them, you knew would be big?
Definitely. "Could You Be Loved," it had a disco-reggae field (we would say a cross-over feel), and it really did work. It really broke Bob Marley and The Wailers big in U.S.A.; from then, everyone in U.S.A. started to pay more attention to his songs.
What is it like to have recorded a song like "Redemption Song," and to tour and hear massive crowds sing along after so many years?
I think it is and will always be a classic. I must say thanks to [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell. We were struggling all day with the band to get the right field for that song, and in the afternoon he walked in the studio, listened, and pressed the talk back and say to Bob, "Bob, a song like this I see just you and acoustic guitar doing it." Bob looked up and ask, "Yeah?" And there he did, and it is and will always be a Bob Marley classic. So you see Bob just didn't have any ego, he was so humble and down to earth with everyone.
What inspired that song?
Only Bob could answer that question, you know he is really a profit. Listen to the lyrics.
Do you like being someone who a lot of people don't really know "who you are" but having made such a big impact in reggae music?
You know, something the whole world knows about the engineer Errol Brown, but there a lot of people see me on stage around the mixing console, but if no one don't say they don't know it's me, I think because I don't look my age. Sometimes even these engineers keep messing with my sound and get me angry, then they know who I am. I never brag about myself until they interfere with my sound, these engineers not using their ears, they are using their eyes and looking on meters, that's so
Editor's note: This blog post originally quoted Errol Brown as saying "fucked up," when he actually said "effed up."
What were Bob and the Wailers like in the studio? What would a typical session be like?
Lots of ganga, and just doing what they do best -- creating.
Do you have any memories of working in the studio with them that stand out?
Just being there to be part of their creation, that never leaves me.
Was the band the same on tour as they were in the studio? Was it a family environment? Light and fun? Serious? etc.?
On tour there are tensions and excitement. Touring is hard you know, no one wants to make mistakes, they just want to be perfect all the time.
My greatest memory [from touring with Marley and the Wailers] is when we perform in Italy in front 100,000 people, and to be a part of this, I just can't explain.
Can you describe what you did between the time Bob passed to working with Rebelution?
Before and after Bob passed, I was working with Rita Marley and Melody Makers in the Studio, so then we started touring and been touring Ziggy Marley from then.
Why did you choose to start working with Rebelution?
A friend hook me up with Rebelution when they were looking an engineer to tour, so when Ziggy was not busy I would join them. I loved the energy of their music and lyrics, so after a while they wanted a full-time engineer to have a consistent sound. I was trying to hook them up with my son Shane Brown, who I know has my sound, but he don't like long tours, he is in artist management and producing so had to stick to his business. So Ziggy took a long break, which was not healthy to my pocket, so I just decided to move on. It was just time to move on, their music puts more energy in my life and carrier, rock mixing reggae. I always want to do some rock mixing, so now it is even better, rock mixing with reggae. I think and see Rebelution is going to put reggae music back up there. At present they have a huge audience and fans, you can hear them screaming and singing along; it makes me so happy.
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