Although he's manned the board in a variety of capacities for some of the world's biggest acts, producer and mixing engineer Tim Palmer originally envisioned his life unfolding on the other side of the studio glass. As a teenager, he played guitar and sang in a band called Emergency Exit. There was just one little problem with his rock dream: While he demonstrated an intuitive flair for layering instruments on the band's early demo recordings, his singing wasn't blowing anybody away.
"I enjoyed the construction aspect of record making," Palmer explains. "Gradually, I started to think about ways I could still be involved in music world without being an artist. When I got my first opportunity to be a tea boy in a studio, I jumped at it.”
At London's Utopia Studios, Palmer fetched tea, brewed coffee and learned the ropes from producers like Richard James Burgess, Pete Walsh and Rod Temperton. While assisting Colin Thurston, who at the time was co-producing a new band called Kajagoogoo with Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran, Palmer got his first real chance to show what he could do working with musicians on his own. During tracking sessions, Thurston and Rhodes would often leave in the early evenings, giving Palmer a few hours to record guitars and assorted overdubs with Kajagoogo. Impressed with Palmer's tracks, Thurston asked his assistant to tackle recording some B-sides with the band.
"Everybody was happy with them, so I asked the band if I could have a co-production credit, which they agreed to." Palmer says. "The label liked the B-sides so much, they put them on the album. So, in one sweep, I went from assisting to co-producing two tracks on the album, and that turned out to be my first gold record.”
Over the year, he's added more of those shiny discs to his collection, including an enviable number of platinum and multi-platinum awards, too (Pearl Jam's Ten, which Palmer mixed, has racked up sales of over 10 million copies in the US alone, placing it in the RIAA's "diamond" category).
Perhaps owing to his lifelong love of raucous guitar rock, one of the hallmarks of Palmer's talents is his uncanny way of buffing and polishing edgy alternative bands for radio consumption without defanging them. As it turns out, some of his own musical chops have come in handy. “These days, I am even playing and adding parts at the mixing stage," he says. "If I think something needs another guitar part or some keyboards, I’ll just add them myself. If the artist doesn't like what I’ve done, I can just hit ‘mute.’ At least I give them everything I've got."
Explaining his philosophy in the studio, Palmer says that he's careful not to impose his own sensibilities on an artist's sound – "It's their record, not mine" – and in the end, the song is ultimately king. "You can sculpt and improve, but if the material isn’t there, you can only do so much," he says. "I’ve worked with many artists more than once, and they know that I’m going to work with them to help them get to where they want to go.”
On the following pages, Palmer looks back at the recording of 14 especially notable albums of his career.