TOM ALLOM: THE MASTER BEHIND THE JUDAS PRIEST REMASTERS
DESPITE HAVING RECORDED the first two heralded metal albums in 1970, Black Sabbath’s self-titled album and its follow-up, Paranoid, Tom Allom wasn’t a scruffy, scrappy rocker and didn’t immediately click with Judas Priest when they were first introduced. “They were working-class lads from Birmingham and they thought I was too posh,” Allom recalls. Regardless, Priest’s label hired Allom to work with Judas Priest to mix their 1979 live album Unleashed in the East, and within weeks a heavy metal union was formed. The first full-length Priest album Allom produced was 1980’s British Steel, and he worked on the band’s next seven releases and returned to co-produce 2018’s Firepower and remastered 50 Heavy Metal Years
of Music. Here, Allom opens up the secrets of the box and more.
How did you get roped into remastering every album in Judas Priest’s catalog and assembling 13 new live albums in less than a year?
I think they were punishing me for something. I’m joking. Someone at Sony just called me and asked if I was interested, but it was quite a bit of work. Three of the live albums came from multi-track recordings, which were pretty good. The first one was the Mud Club live show from 1979, which was right before I started officially working with the band. And then there was a show in Houston and one in New Haven, Connecticut. But then I got a whole slew of CDs of unreleased stuff and some of it was really awful. It sounded like it was recorded on a Sony Walkman in someone’s back pocket, with his ass blocking out most of the sound. Honestly, I have no idea where some of these things came from. There were some pretty serious technical problems with those, but I
did everything I could to make them sound halfway decent.
Did any of the studio albums require major tweaking or rejiggering?
Actually, I didn’t want to mess with the sound of the original CDs at all. There have been so many remastered versions of that stuff, and each time the albums get remastered they’re remastered from previous remasters. In the end, they sound quite different from the way they were intended. So I just went back to the original CDs and used them because, obviously, we didn’t have the original tapes.
Did anyone have any problem with your decision to return the albums to their original forms?
Some people who heard the recordings said, “Wait a minute. Some of the CDs are much quieter than some of the others. What happened?” Here’s what happened. In the late Eighties, CDs were remastered to be louder and louder. I’ve heard remasters of albums I did that don’t sound anything like the original mixes. They just don’t breathe. They don’t have that air in them because they’re slammed to the maximum level. That’s why I went back to the original CDs on the box set. With the albums Judas Priest did when Ripper was in the band and then on a couple albums when Rob rejoined, there was still this obsession with making them as loud as possible, and in my view it absolutely ruined the original feel of the albums. When it came to Firepower, Andy Sneap and I were very aware that it needed to be loud, but it needed to breathe as well.
What do you remember about the first time you met Priest in the late Seventies?
I think we were in a pub called The Royal Oak around the corner from their management’s office. I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t know very much about heavy metal, despite the fact that I had previously worked with Sabbath. So I was introduced to the guys in this pub and I don’t think they were particularly interested in meeting me. But I had just done a live album with Pat Travers, so I got thrown together with them to mix Unleashed in the East. A couple weeks later, we were getting on famously and that cemented our friendship and working relationship.
Legend has it that Unleashed in the East wasn’t a good recording and you did tons of redubs with them to make it one of the greatest live metal albums.
Actually, only the vocals were significantly changed. Rob’s voice was shot to ribbons when he did that show. It was the end of the tour and I think he had laryngitis. So, we got together at Tittenhurst Park and it was a beautiful summer day in June. I said to Rob, “Okay, you’re gonna stand on the terrace and look out at these 80 acres of gorgeous trees, and what you’re looking at aren’t trees, they’re 100,000 Judas Priest fans.” I handed him a Shure SM57 microphone and played the whole show front to back. I told him I wasn’t going to stop and he should sing the entire concert. He did it in one take so it was very much a live performance.
Didn’t you also do a lot of work with the guitars on that album?
That’s what everybody says, but it couldn’t be further from the truth because the performance was great. There were some small problems that we tried to correct, but it’s so difficult to record a guitar overdub that matches something done live. You can do it now with plug-ins, but back then it was bloody near impossible. I know people call it “Unleashed in the Studio,” but it wasn’t like that at all. I was there. I did it. And I think that’s one of the reasons they asked me back for British Steel because we were able to quickly sort out what could have been a big problem.
You worked as Judas Priest’s producer from British Steel in 1980 through Ram It Down in 1988, then you returned for Firepower in 2018. Do you think you’ll be there for the band’s next studio album?
I certainly hope so, but I don’t know where the next album is coming from musically. I’ve heard some ideas and they’re really good. I hope Andy Sneap is involved again as well because he’s a phenomenal heavy music producer. I think we work really well together and I’m really hoping we get to do that soon. — Jon Wiederhorn
“I KNOW PEOPLE CALL IT ‘UNLEASHED IN THE STUDIO,’ BUT IT WASN’T LIKE THAT AT ALL. I WAS THERE”