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Neil Young’s Producer: Be Prepared for Anything

John Hanlon’s Journey Through the Past

John Hanlon in SRT class
John Hanlon prepares for every problem before a session, from equipment redundancy to diagramming the room.

By David Perry

When John Hanlon’s eyes betrayed him, he turned to his ears, and his passion, to make a living.

The veteran producer and sound engineer retraced his career footsteps and offered sage advice to budding sound professionals during a visit to campus Oct. 3. For four hours in Durgin 114, the man best known as producer-engineer for Neil Young recounted his professional life, offering tips and playing examples of his work for an overflow crowd of Sound Recording Technology students.

Hanlon focused on working with rock iconoclast Young, whose exacting standards for sound quality are legendary. Young isn’t one to fix mistakes (“that’s the human condition,” said Hanlon, smiling) but he wants his recordings produced as faithfully as possible to when they were played. 

Hanlon co-produced young’s recent “Americana” collection of public domain standards as well as the forthcoming collection of new songs, “Psychedelic Pill,” both recorded with Crazy Horse.

Hanlon’s career is rooted in his time during the Vietnam-era Navy. He hoped to become a pilot, but his eyesight fell short of standards. So he turned to his ears for a living, after studying naval avionics and electronics.

He engineered recordings by Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and funk band War before working on Young’s 1983 album, Trans. He didn’t meet Young until 1990, when he engineered “Ragged Glory.”

“They’re playing away and I was walking through the room to hear the balance, sound and tone,” recalled Hanlon. “And I walked in front of Neil’s rig. He stopped playing. Everything stopped. I’ve waited years for this and on my first day, I think, I’m going to be fired. And he glared down at me. ‘Don’t ever walk in front of my amp again while I’m playing,’ he said.

“Well,” said producer David Briggs when Hanlon returned to the control room, “you’ve just met Neil.”
The last-minute program came about because Hanlon was visiting relatives in New Hampshire and called SRT Asst. Prof. Alex Case. The two met while working together in Boston years ago and remain friends.

Hanlon admires Young’s ethics (“this guy is a true artist”) and as a boss, and has a way of catching every hum and crackle of his electric guitar over Crazy Horse’s electrified gallop.

“I have a satisfied client,” he said, beaming. 

Patrick Meany, a senior SRT major and vice president of the University’s student chapter of the Audio Engineering Society, said landing the likes of Hanlon is “kind of a trip. It was pretty amazing.  ... We don’t always get people who are big names or who record big names. I learned a lot about being a working professional and it was really interesting and useful to hear how he got to where he is.”