Working in the box: in conversation with sound engineer Stephen W Tayler

Producer and sound engineer Stephen W Tayler has worked with artists from Kate Bush to Peter Gabriel and his career has spanned technological innovations from early multi-track recording to the creation of audio visual experiences. Emma Clegg goes to Real World Studios in Box to find the man behind the music.

I have been learning about multi-track recording from an expert. Multi-track is a method of sound recording that allows for the separate recording of multiple sound sources. First developed in the mid-1950s, each ‘track’ was recorded to its own area on the tape whereby the sequence of recorded events would be preserved, and playback is synchronised.

“A lot of The Beatles’ work was done on four-track, meaning that they could record the band playing on tracks one and two. Then they could add the vocals on track three and maybe some orchestral elements on track four. It was innovative during the 1950s. This was where the art of mixing came into play, because once you’ve added those parts then you have to balance the levels.”

Mixer, producer, composer, sound designer and audio engineer Stephen W Tayler – who works from his studio within Real World Studios, Box (the studio converted and set up by Peter Gabriel in 1988) – was explaining to me how in his career he has seen multi-track recording and other technical innovations completely revolutionise the industry.

Above: Stephen with an image from Da Capo, projected on him; photograph by Sadia Sadia

“When I started in 1974 the industry had just started to use 16-track and it was just about to become 24-track. And the tape was getting wider – originally tape was ¼ inch, then they did eight tracks on one-inch tape and then 16 tracks on two-inch tape and then 24 tracks on two-inch tape.”

As the technology grew, Stephen explains, so did the complexity of the recording. So rather than do all the rehearsal and preparation ahead of time before recording – what used to happen – musicians would go into the studio and experiment and write the music while they were in the studio and recording, with the creative ability to add more and more parts.

“In 1978 they started to synchronise two 24-track machines and then a few years after that digital recording technology came in which still used tape, but now it was the means of capturing the sound. Then there were 48-track machines that recorded on a one-inch tape digitally, and then you had the switch to recording through a digital recording workstation computer (rather than using tape), so recording on to the hard drive. Nowadays the number of inputs and outputs to your system is really as many or as few as you want. I run with eight in and eight out systems. But these days there is no upper limit as to how many tracks you can use. This is why the process of being a remix engineer does require a certain expertise.”

Above: Stephen preparing for his live show of Da Capo in the Big Room at Real World Studios; photograph by Kola Forrester

Training and apprenticeship
After studying clarinet and organ at the Royal College of Music Stephen found (fortuitously, by popping in and making an enquiry) a job as a tea boy at Trident Studios in 1974. “The whole industry has changed so much since then,” says Stephen. “When I started and for several years after, you had to use professional studio recording facilities. There wasn’t affordable equipment that people could use in their homes. What’s happened since is that the technology has become available for just about every kind of musician.”

In the era when Stephen was working at Trident, many studios aimed to create their own recognisable sounds.

“Traditional studios like DECCA, EMI and Abbey Road used to really try and perfect doing things with a standard method, to make things that sounded smooth and warm and clean. Studios like Trident, however, were all about trying to develop their own identity. By breaking the rules and not conforming to the proper ways of doing things they’d come up with a tougher, more aggressive sound. It was a time where you’d often listen to a record and be able to identify the studio it came from, because of the clarity or the warmth or sometimes the mushy, not very clear sound. Trident would use techniques like putting microphones a lot closer to the instruments so that element was more dominant.”

In the late 1980s and 90s studios started to be competitive in having the same equipment, and as the technology developed, ‘total recall’ was built into mixing consoles, meaning that the settings could be stored and recalled. “That enabled different ways of working where if a record company were not satisfied with something they could say ‘go back and improve that aspect of it’. This was when the sound became more generic. Then later, sounds became more attached to the producer or production team rather than the studio, and people started becoming independent and freelance. That’s why over the years I moved away from being part of a particular company. So now the facilities are important but the focus is on the style of the production team. And that’s what you are trying to do when you’re an independent freelancer like myself.”

Professional collaboration
Stephen has worked with artists such as Kate Bush, Howard Jones, Tina Turner, Stevie Nicks, Bob Geldof, Peter Gabriel and Suzanne Vega, as well as with more eclectic bands and musicians. One of these is progressive rock band Van Der Graaf Generator, formed in the 1960s. While never achieving sustained success, they were groundbreaking and iconic, known for their dark musical atmosphere and still retain a huge following today. Stephen, who describes their music as “experimental, interesting and brave”, is currently working on a set of theirs for Universal Music with 20 discs – four of them are studio albums where he has created a new mix in stereo and surround sound.

“Historically I’ve often worked with quite eclectic artists” says Stephen. “Working with Kate Bush has been a really important thing for me because she has so much integrity as an artist and never bows to any pressure to conform. It’s just fascinating being able to work with interesting artists, rather than trying to fit the bill of the Top 10. My career has been an engrossing journey even though it’s been through peaks and troughs, because I’ve always worked with really interesting people on interesting projects. And I’ve never got stuck in one genre.”

Alongside major labels, Stephen also works with independent musicians, such as singer songwriter Howard Jones.

“When I first worked with Howard he had been signed by major label Warner Music who used a commercial recording studio and I was part of the early production team. Later Howard built his own recording studio and set up his own label. I have probably mixed more work with him over the years since he became independent! So much work is done in a workspace with people who you work with solidly for a period of time, and you get to know them really well and develop these wonderful relationships.”

You might think you want to make that note more perfectly in tune, but the fact that it’s bending in and out of tune is creating emotion

Stephen’s long experience in the industry has given him the ability to be committed about what is recorded, and he works very decisively in his creative process. “I like to be committed during the process, but I often work with people who like to delay decisions and use a phrase called ‘leave it to the mix’. This is a terrible idea! When we recorded to tape, there was no ‘undo’ button. If you recorded something, that was it – you could record over it but then you couldn’t go back to what was on the tape before it. So I’m glad I came up through that decisive period.

“A singer now might come in and do 20 takes of a song and not decide which one they want to use, so somebody has to then later on come up with a copy of the lyrics and a different take on each fader and decide which word or which line from each one they want to compile.”

This makes you realise how complex the role of the mix engineer is. “Mixing is like creating a picture,” explains Stephen. “Some people like to give you a technical instruction when mixing; others are more abstract asking for ‘warmer’, ‘harder’, ‘softer’, ‘more dynamic’ or ‘more intimate’ sounds. Often people just trust me and leave me alone to just get on with it!

“Of the musicians I’ve worked with some are highly trained and knowledgeable and some are just instinctive. Not every musician has to be totally schooled and accurate all the time. Sometimes it’s the imperfections in what they do that make them unique.

Above: a still from one of the videos used in Da Capo showing the gates of Real World Studios. This still and the album cover above were created and designed by Stephen W Tayler

“Frequently I encourage artists to trust other people who know when they are at their best. Because you might think you want to make that note more perfectly in tune, but the fact that it’s bending in and out of tune is creating emotion and if you smooth it out to be ‘perfect’ you kill the emotion.”

The technology has also brought massive benefits, not least the ability to improve a recording in post-production: “I have worked with a lot of live recordings to mix and quite often you have things that need fixing because there may have been a technical problem or a noise in the crowd and these days you have the technology to enable you to sort it out.”

There’s also the ability to send and receive massive files. In the 1990s Stephen and his partner Sadia, the producer and installation artist, were based in London working on a production for an Australian label. “During the week we’d make an updated mix of what we were doing and then send it on FedEx which would take four to five days to get to Sydney to get the reaction. Now you can send a file instantly for reference. They can also send you all the component parts, video and multi-channel audio, so now I am sent massive quantities of data that used to be delivered on big solid tapes.”

DA CAPO: A personal album
A more personal musical expression came into play last September when Stephen released his own personal album Da Capo, an ambitious instrumental suite intended to take the listener on a journey through time, conceived as an audio visual experience and including a CD of stereo mixes as well as a DVD of film poems.

“I’ve spent the bulk of my career as a recording and mixing engineer, with occasional co-production roles and it’s only been over the last 20 years that I’ve done productions of my own.

“I’ve also become more interested in audio visual experiences over the years,” Stephen says. “When I first created Da Capo it was as a surround sound and a visual experience. I was preparing to do a live show and to create an album. So it was all created at the same time to be this experience of the sound field, and the visuals were more like an atmospheric light show than a film or a video. I wanted to create the live experience of being in the room with the sound and vision which were conceived simultaneously.”

One of the tracks called Four Ways to Fiveways was inspired by a car journey one sunny September morning as Stephen was travelling down the main Box Hill road through a tunnel of trees with the light flickering through them. “I already had a bit of a tune running in my head, so I wanted to capture that. So I strapped a camera onto the bonnet of my car and I drove from here up to Fiveways and back and then I used this mirror technique which is actually four aspects of the same image, mirrored. So Four Ways to Fiveways became the track.

Why not experience the journey yourself with a copy of Stephen’s CD/DVD Da Capo?

Da Capo, £12.99;; digital download;

Featured image: Stephen in the Big Room recording studio at Real World Studios; photograph by Anil Prasad