An interview with Stuart Epps, British record producer and sound engineer
I’ve always believed that the universe conspires yet ever so gently, and so, these days, I try to take most of my opportunities as they are delivered. It’s almost a trend for people around me to speak of the “law of attraction”, but if you don’t really live it, how can that be?
I prefer Hindi values, myself, that is to try to vibrate with the very frequency of the universal “hum” itself, I find good things come to me, it feels like singing in tune with the universe, in harmony. Oh, and of course, these days I’ve also learned to follow the pull of my inner tummy too, it’s just like the sat. nav. to the soul.
Even if my skills do not always exactly match the challenges at hand, I’ve had the most fabulous adventures.
Would you care to come with me? On one of these adventures, there’s room in the car, and petrol in the tank.
This particular tale began one evening, last year, with an introduction in The Kings Arms, Cookham, via a mutual friend, to Mr Stuart Epps. Not a name I recognised at first, but certainly one my colleagues whispered in near reverential tones.
It was soon made clear to me, through gentlemanly banter, that Stuart, to say the least, has played quite a role in music history itself, his career spans over 4 decades – so far.
Not least having worked alongside Elton John, with his producer Gus Dudgeon and many others at the almost mythical studios, The Mill, at Cookham. This I believed, was an opportunity just too grand to miss, and Stuart very kindly agreed to an interview with me just a few days later.
Allow me then would you, to take you with me, for this begins a thrilling connection to a “golden age” if you will, and to a man whose career really mattered (and continues to matter), through the times when music simply mattered most.
I arrive at his apartment in Cookham on the most beautiful day in late August, the sun is literally bursting with energy, splitting through the gaps between the houses and street shops as I drive past, like the light shining through a zoetrope animation. A groovy, wrought iron staircase leads to the roof-garden entrance above, and I approach somewhat tentatively, trying to muster a little courage. I’m no interviewer you see, and I realise I should have brought a digital recorder with me at least, damn it.
To the left is parked a classic Jag X12 which tells me this is the house of someone who salutes the “old school” and frankly I admire that. In fact, an old girlfriend of mine (who always reminded me of Marian Faithful) used to drive the very same model, “like faded aristocracy” she’d explain.
Stuart greets me at the door beaming, with a wonderful glowing energy and leads me immediately to his studio room; he is thoroughly convivial and boundlessly determined, as he enthusiastically begins to show me his latest projects without a second thought, remixing tracks from all over the world, via computer.
His remix is frankly fabulous, where there was once ‘mulch’ and ‘fog’ to the track, everything is lifted and clarified, Stuart effectively remasters and saves this digital recording from America, via the net. Using not only an eclectic knowledge of how to operate complex recording programs (which are frankly harder to learn in many ways than an “analogue, hands-on” desk) but also applying his vast experience to the final product.
On top of the producing and sound engineering, he is lecturing and delivering eLearning online via platforms like Skype. He is also promoting his current passion, The Epps Factor. This, he tells me, is an opportunity for unsigned acts to gain professional feedback from a panel of industry stalwarts such as Stuart himself, Kiki Dee, Paul Gambaccini and Tony Blackburn, to name but a few.
Stuart, quite unlike the Jag then, is by no means “faded aristocracy”, but completely “on the ball”, contemporary and VERY much in demand.
For a moment I feel quite overawed, I’ve never conducted a “proper” interview before and suddenly feel out of my depth. Stuart, in contrast, is wholly self-assured, an old hand if you like, he’s done this a hundred times, or even more. But, I want to capture something slightly different, an impression of the man if you like, not just the history. I glance at the walls around us and see that they are adorned with gold discs, one for example, (I’m quite sure, sure as I squint), is Elton John’s Rocket Man. It may not be, but it’s certainly Elton John.
Above us dangles a mirrored disco ball, “this used to hang above Gus’s bed” Stuart smiles wryly, following my gaze, as if it was always an old, ironic joke between the two of them. Below, and to the right, is a wonderful pair of older, tweed-covered, Tannoy speakers that also belonged to Gus, and sitting on top the old industry-standard (but oh so challenging to the ear) Yamaha NS10s reference speakers - of course. If you get a mix right on these, the old adage goes, the mix will sound right on anything. I would expect nothing less.
As the last of the summer sun bursts through the window behind us I begin to feel uncomfortable. Inadequate. Stuart, for me, is that direct connection to the eras in music that I love the most. Like a silver astral thread to the past. A doorway at the back of the wardrobe. In a way, it’s like dialling memories on one of those rotary phones, where you have to wait for the dial to return to the beginning for each number to register with a mechanical ‘whir’… A bead of sweat wanders down my face as I realise I am woefully unprepared.
Stuart sees I’m struggling a little and takes control.
“I’ve been doing this for 44 years” he explained, “I’ve met so many wonderful people you know, but the one thing I always try to remember is, that we are ALL just human beings…” As he speaks, he wishes to reassure me with an aura of both command and calm about him, but there is an endearing kindness too. Essential skills for an engineer or producer.
It is that confidence that every free-flowing artist needs, someone to act as a unobtrusive guide, to provide safe working parameters and perimeters without setting negative constraints. “Gus would run his studios like a Sergeant Major,” Stuart explained proudly, “everything was meticulously planned and executed, it had to be in those days, because of the limitations in recording equipment”. I can see this military approach has rubbed off on Stuart. Like a George Martin amongst Beatles then? Within a moment, he has put me at my ease and begins to tell me about his extraordinary career.
Stuart began working as an office boy at the age of 15 for Dick James Publishing in 1967 (The Beatles first publisher). “I was earning £6 a week” he enthused, “but it felt like a fortune, it was an atmosphere of amazing music and extraordinary characters, I was being introduced to brand new music everyday, seeing and hearing new records, like the White album for example, before public release” he recalled, “ and Harrison and Elton – Reg Dwight – were very much part of that scene at the time”
Stuart then quickly worked his way up this heavenly “Jacob’s” ladder, from office boy to disc-cutter. Finally becoming assistant engineer to Steve Brown, the ‘Head of Label’ at Dick James Music, which finally resulted in Elton and Bernie Taupin’s very first single, Lady Samantha.
It was Steve Brown in fact, who along with Gus Dudgeon (fresh from producing David Bowie’s 1969 hit, Space Oddity) teamed up with Elton himself, to set up Rocket Records, one of the very first “independent” record labels.
Soon would follow the wonderful records we all know and love, Tumbleweed Connection,Madman Across The Water, Honky Chateau,Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player and of course Yellow Brick Road, all of which Stuart engineered and Gus produced (in fact, it’s Stuart’s jacket I believe, that Elton is pictured wearing on the yellow brick road album cover itself)
Unbelievably, Stuart was not only A&R manager for “Rocket” at this time, but also co-manager for Kiki Dee as well as being Elton John’s personal assistant throughout his initial successes and American tours, all at the age of only 18, culminating 4 whirlwind years later with John Lennon’s legendary concert appearance at Madison Square Gardens in 1974. Where John Lennon joined Elton on stage, marking not only John’s first public appearance for many years, but indeed, his very final one. I mean, can you Imagine? I can only dream.
By the time Stuart returned to England however, everything had changed, “No one thought anything was going to last, I’d met a girl who lived in an ice cream van in Hawaii” he laughed, “and I thought, that’s what I’m going to do, retire there and sell ice-cream.”
Gus Dudgeon, however, had other plans and by the end of 1974, asked Stuart to join him in his new studios, The Mill at Cookham, as head engineer. “This was the best equipped studio of its time.” enthused Stuart, explaining that the MCI mixing desk Gus had installed was tailored to his every need. He also told me how he and Gus would describe the Slough West exit from the M4 motorway as “the big willy turnoff” due to its curious shape.
I can see them now, in my mind’s eye, and it makes me roar with laughter thinking of every time they would have approached exit 7 travelling out of London Town toward Cookham, I mean, you can’t help but smile at the thought can you? Stuart and Elton? Roaring with laughter.
Stuart worked on many projects at the Mill throughout the 70s, Elton John, Lindisfarne (Run For Home) and Chris Rea recorded hits there to name but a few, (Rea’s Fool If You Think It’s Over was produced by Dudgeon, and engineered by Stuart, at the Mill in 1978) but the biggest change came in 1980 when Jimmy Page, from Led Zeppelin, bought the studios and appointed Stuart as the studio manager….
“I didn’t meet him for 3 months,” Stuart laughed. “The Zeppelin myth always painted Page as being a dark disciple of Alasdair Crowley” I interject, “was he?” “Well, he was real Howard Hughes I can tell you that,” grinned Stuart “I didn’t see him often, he was a strange guy, a total eccentric.”
Here, Stuart engineered for the likes of George Harrison, Bill Wyman and Paul Rodgers(Free/The Firm) but it was Stuart’s work on the very last Led Zeppelin L.P., Coda, in 1982, that lead to him being asked to produce Twisted Sister’s 1983 debut album for Atlantic Records, giving Stuart’s craft true, transatlantic, rock appeal.
It was Chris Rea who finally took on ownership of The Mill, high on successes from records likeShamrock Diaries and On the Beach, eventually downsizing however to what became known as The Garage, but things were far from over.
“It was an amazing time,” says Stuart “Chris could be difficult to work with at times, but so can any artist.” By 1994, however, Stuart had moved over to Alvin Lee’s nearby private studio, Wheeler End, transforming it into a residential commercial studio. Among his customers here were a brand new tribe of Britpop varieties, Oasis, Robbie Williams, Mark Owen and Paul Weller, as well as old mainstays such as Chris de Burgh.
An amazing career then, by anyone’s standards, and I haven’t even begun to explore the half of it here. The list of people he has worked with is eclectic to say the least, from the very, very famous, to the very cool, and the fact that Stuart embraces new technologies wholeheartedly, has kept him firmly in the driving seat for decades. “I have my son to thank for that,” he explained “he introduced me to Myspace, which in turn helped me discover a whole new way of working.” It is a great testament to him that he is held in such high regard in the music industry.
“I have always felt privileged to have a career that I am passionate about” he is quoted as saying, and THAT is what singularly comes across to me; that Aries passion, that competitive fire, the child-like excitement for new ideas, and a delight in finding fresh sounds with contempory technologies, in an industry where so many become so jaded so soon.
Some 3 hours by now has whisked by, and momentarily, whilst we talk and enjoy our lunch in the very last of the summer sun, I have a small epiphany of my own. I suddenly remember, as if peering through my own fog of time, that I have actually helped to install the very control desk of which Stuart has spoken, the Mill’s MCI, into another studio 10 years ago. I really had absolutely NO IDEA of this when I arrived all those hours ago. Once again the universe has conspired it seems… but ever so gently. This is MY connection to The Mill, no matter how small or humble. “It’s a fabulous thing” I say, thoroughly excited, “it’s all a buzz and a hum with crackling valves, it was introduced to me as Elton’s desk, a mystical thing imbued with magical powers.”
“Oh, I don’t think it’s valve” replied Stuart, furrowing his brow, pausing for a moment chomping on his petrol-station chicken sandwich… and then he remembers “Oh no, you’re right, yes, it did have a valve section.” We smile like musicians smile when they just “get it”. Like singing in tune.
I so regret not having had time to prepare 20 blistering questions for, in retrospect, there are so many things I would like the answers to now, “what was Harrison like to work with?”, “What was your favourite moment with Elton?”, the list is endless. But them’s the breaks. You only get the opportunities you get.
This must be a lesson for me then, to do my research, and to “man up” as a journalist. But then, you know, I do so love approaching these things simply as “A Fan”. For primarily that is what I am.
Stuart Epps currently performs with Juliette GoughThe Epps Factor. Please join Stuart on his website www.stuartepps.co.uk
Richmond Harding is a musician, writer, illustrator and dreamer.
He interviews musicians and industry personnel, and reviews music and gigs.
Stuart Epps started his musical journey at a very young age. He worked at Dick James Music as an errand boy when he was 15 years old. He quickly moved up the ladder and has been involved with the music business ever since. He was the Chief Engineer at DJM Studios, and toured the United States with Elton John as his personal assistant. He produced albums from Led Zeppelin, Elton John, and Bad Company to name just a few. He's had so many incredible experiences through his life, and I was lucky enough to have him share some of his stories with me. He told me about the early days and the excitement that was in the air in London through the late 60's. One of the many things that impress me about Mr. Epps is that he always looking forward. He continues to work with up and coming artists, and is on the lookout for new talent. There are so many layers to this man's career. Learn more at http://www.stuartepps.co.uk/ and enjoy the interview. Stuart Epps is a living legend, and it was an honor to meet with him. Enjoy!
Aspiring artists and producers alike should find this interview both sobering and inspiring. We talked about some of the main issues confronting the industry today and his answers were fascinating. The main message I personally took from it is that we all have sometimes rigid perceptions of what the “music industry” should be and what it owes us for our efforts, but, as George Gershwin would say, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Success in any facet of the business is difficult, but it is definitely possible. In some ways, not much has changed, and that should be a relief to many. Without further delay, Stuart Epps!
Mr. Epps, it’s an honor to speak with you and thank you for your contributions to music. Please share with our readers what you’ve been up to lately. I understand that you accept independent artist submissions for production, mixing and mastering, which is a stellar opportunity.
Hi James. It’s incredible, really. I’ve been in this business for 40 years now and I thought I’d seen everything, done everything and been everywhere, but it’s the amazing thing about this business I’m in that I’m often finding myself in situations I haven’t been in before; whether it’s a different band, different music or different sounds, and obviously the music business is changing and has changed dramatically.
At the moment, via a great music website called Music XRay I have been mixing bands and artist’s home recordings, which is something I never imagined I’d be doing. To be honest I got a bit fed up with lack of budgets and trying to get artists to record in commercial studios. Anyway, with the invention of the internet I’m in touch with bands and the internet has brought us together – musicians and artists and producers from all over the world.
So it’s pooling resources, and what I’m finding myself doing now is taking the waves from artist’s home recordings and mixing them, as well as sometimes adding my own production ideas such as adding other instruments and enhancing what they’ve already achieved, which is working out great. I’m enjoying doing it. Sometimes artists aren’t the easiest to deal with face to face. This way I’m not always having to. Sometimes I don’t even speak to anyone. We’re just communicating via their music, which isn’t a bad thing really. That’s working out well and I’ve been very busy with that. I’m still working with artists in my own studio and in commercial studios but as I said, unfortunately budgets are on the decrease so remixing is a good way to “carry on the good work”.
What is the best way for someone interested in music production to learn how to do what you do?
Interesting question because music is so huge now, really – bigger than ever before and everyone is making music it would seem. It’s promoted on the TV with all your X Factor style shows where everyone is singing away and playing furiously, and live music is bigger than ever before. So everyone wants to learn how to be a music producer it would seem, and I’ve been lecturing to music schools via skype in Canada and across the world about this. There are many thousands of colleges that are teaching engineering and music production and of course I’m all for it.
In my day, the only way to learn was really hands on starting at the bottom in a recording studio or a publishers. In my case it was a demo studio and you’d learn engineering and somehow work your way up. Obviously there is a lot more available now as you can actually go to schools to learn that. Hands on is the best way as well. With home recording facilities you can experiment at home, with your friends and with bands. I’m always talking about what separates an engineer from someone who wants to do music production. It’s a fascinating subject which is too lengthy to go into here, but they are very different things to learn how to do. For music production, the best thing to do would be to go to a college and jump into it as soon as possible with friends, with bands, with home recording, and learn as much as you can.
Please share your thoughts on the controversial issue of free file sharing and it’s effects on independent artists.
With the invention of the internet it’s incredible that you can record a demo or a track in the morning and by the evening have it finished and promote it through all the various music sites. Of course I think that it would be nice to make money out of it, but at that early stage I think just getting people to listen is a good thing, really. There’s so much music out there that you can’t really charge for these things until you become a little bit more well known and maybe your music has evolved and gotten that much better. Then, maybe you can charge for it, but that’s just the same as it was in the 60′s and 70′s.
A new band starting out was not likely to get paid in a pub or a club. If they made a demo, they probably would have to pay for it. Good luck trying to sell it, too. It’s not really any different in that respect. It’s just that everyone assumes these days that if you make something one day you should be able to sell it the next day somewhere or other. The main thing is – none of us really thought about the money when we were making music in the 60′s or 70′s. If you start out at age 15 or 16 or even earlier, you’re not thinking in monetary terms. You’re just thinking “I want to play music”, and if money comes along that’s a complete bonus, but this was when the music industry was in it’s infancy. It wasn’t such a huge industry as it is now. I understand that everyone wants to make money from it but I think the fact is that there are so many more people listening to music than ever before. It’s become a cheaper item. The whole thing has been cheapened to a certain extent, but because it’s in such vast quantities it sort of makes up for it in that respect.
Is the music industry evolving or collapsing? Does it matter?
It’s definitely evolving. It’s always been evolving. Revolving and evolving…it’s probably more revolving now as music just seems to go around in circles with the technology and the different styles of bands. It does seem that there’s very little that comes along now that seems to be completely new. It always seems to be somewhat of a rehash of some of the old music. It’s just reinvented. People say that the music industry is finished or has collapsed, and certainly the old music industry has collapsed pretty much. The giant record companies are obviously feeling the pressure from the internet, and that’s a good thing, really. The only way that you could get a record deal or get your music heard in my day was through a record company or a publisher and very much through the establishment that was set up, which was hard to break into.
Now artists can record a record in their bedroom in the morning and have it beamed out to whoever is there to listen by the evening. That’s something that didn’t exist when I started, so it’s definitely evolving. It’s difficult to make money from making records, I suppose. That’s what we’re talking abut. It’s not difficult to make music and it’s not difficult to get it heard, really. You can have your own radio station if there’s people there to listen. It’s possible.
Making money out of the music business and making it a career is not so easy, but then again it never was. Just like any other industry it’s very difficult. I would say that it’s an extremely exciting time. The live music industry is bigger than ever. There’s more bands. There’s more artists. There’s more people playing live than ever before, and that’s an incredible thing. Who would have thought that would have ever been the case in the 60′s, or certainly the 80′s when it was mainly electronic music. So that’s a great thing and I think that the music industry at the moment is more exciting than ever.
Many artists don’t seem to know how to promote themselves properly. What are some of the most common mistakes you see artists make all the time?
It’s very difficult. I tend to go for the old, traditional ways which are music publishers and record companies, but then obviously there’s Myspace and Facebook. There are literally hundreds of thousands of ways for the individual to promote themselves across the internet with all the various music sites. I think it takes the same tenacity that was needed years ago. The only thing is, life is a bit easier now generally.
People aren’t as ruthless now as they used to be in getting their music heard. It was a question of getting out of the house. “How do I get out of the house? How do I leave home? I’m going to go join a band and we’ll tour all over the place as long as we don’t have to be at home, and as long as we’re playing our music”. I think that some of that has gone out of individual artists ideas, really. I mean, everyone thinks that you can just make a record in the morning and tomorrow it will be number 1; everyone will be buying it and everyone will be watching you on Youtube and you’ll be on X Factor, and everyone tends to want immediate success without putting in as much of the hard work and technical ability or musicality that is required to make great music. It’s only when you make great music that you will get a great reaction, and you’ll find that you probably don’t have to promote yourself.
A lot of the artists that I work with – it took them years, really, to achieve any sort of status. You’ve got to be dedicated and single-minded. Never give up and never let anything stand in your way. These are the things that are required to help promote yourself.
It seems that you have found innovative and collaborative ways to continously be successful with what you do. Do you have any advice for young producers as well as artists who may be stuck in old models of thinking? (For example, many artists obsess over the decrease of album sales but fail to educate themselves on the benefits of licensing or advertising.)
If we’re talking about well known bands, it is a fact that record sales have decreased. There is a lot of pirateing and downloading that still goes on, so obviously even the successful bands aren’t selling in the quantities they used to. At the same time, ticket sales are absolutely huge for big bands and that’s become the new way for artists to make money. In the early days, the gig was really a promotional tool for the CD and now that’s completely reversed. The CD is the promotional tool for the live gig, where then the famous band can go ahead and charge $200 a ticket whereas the CD is only likely to be $20, so it’s changed a lot in that respect. I mean, it’s always been about promotion. That’s where the record companies were vital, really…that whole system of signing a new artist, nurturing them, paying for it as it went along, recording demos, promoting…
I was in there working with Elton John right from the beginning working for Dick James, and a whole team of us…40, 50 people working every day, really, to try and make Elton John a famous artist and to increase record sales, and his whole career, so it’s not an easy situation for someone to do on their own. It’s almost impossible I would say, but if you’re determined enough and you use the tools that are available (which weren’t available then), you just have to keep at it and it’s possible to get your name out there. You’ve got to be very dedicated, and beyond all those things, it’s about having a great product. You have to have a product that stands out not necessarily quality wise or production wise but depth-wise, the writing and the musicianship. Any great artist who has the right tools will come through in the end. It’s just a matter of time.
Is music more difficult to promote these days? Do you feel the market is oversaturated?
It’s a very good question. When I started off, music was not something that everyone was into and I suppose you felt that you were part of a select few that made music or recorded music. Maybe there was that magic about it, the idea that “it’s only us that know about it”, and now everyone seems to be talking about it. If we had a pair of headphones to listen to music with, that was unusual. Now you get on the train and everyone has got a pair of headphones on, but I just think it’s great actually. It’s just great to see everyone doing what we hoped everyone would do, and that’s listening to music and making music.
I don’t know about the term ‘oversaturated’. There’s a lot of still not very good music and there’s very few things that ARE great. Maybe that’s a good thing as well. To make great music and be a great artist isn’t easy. It is difficult. It IS possible but it still takes the same amount of talent that it always took, and you still can’t “make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear”, so to speak. No matter what technology comes along, it’s still not possible to be great unless you are truly great. It’s just like any other art, really, whether it’s painting or sculpting. It doesn’t matter how many people have a go at it. There’s still only going to be certain people who will succeed at it and are great at it. It doesn’t matter how many people make music or get involved in music. It seems that quality wins out in the end…hopefully.
You’ve worked with some of the greats such as Led Zeppelin and Elton John. In your opinion, is musical greatness something that has to come about naturally, or is tenacity the necessary ingredient?
It’s a great question, and I’m lucky to say that having seen it happen, I think I have an answer. Of course, musical talent is important first and foremost. Being a great singer, songwriter, and musician – if you have all those 3 that’s very, very rare but that’s definitely going to get you somewhere. That’s for sure. If you’re a great singer, songwriter and a great performer that’s when you get the greats. You mentioned Elton John and Led Zeppelin, some of the greats who I’ve been fortunate enough to work with – they had those 3 talents. But also, extremely important and just as important, if not more important, is determination, having an inner strength and a wanting to succeed in the business of music. To have it happen. To make it big. To question everything, really.
If you do that all the way along the line then chances are you will come out with something special. If you’re writing a song and you think “No, it’s got to be better. It’s got to be better. It can still be better.” then you’ll write a better song. If you’re trying to become a better singer, you hear yourself recorded and you think “No, I can sing better than that. I want to sing better than that. I’m going to sing better than that.” Same with guitar playing, piano playing, drums – everything. It’s critical as a musician to get better and better.
Some things I find difficult with young musicians if they want to be great at everything. They want to be a great drummer and a great singer and a great producer and a great engineer. They seem to want to be good at every part of every facet of the music business, which isn’t the case with some of those people I’ve mentioned. In the early days, musicians let managers and producers get on with what they did while they got on with what they did the best they knew how, and I think that’s something to learn from, really. Get as good as you can at your instrument, your song writing, and question it all the time.
I mean, Jimmy Page – you mentioned Led Zeppelin, I know that he never achieved what he wanted to achieve in the studio. None of these artists fully achieved it. It was always the striving to get that perfection, and that’s what makes for great music and great artists.
What do you look for in artists you choose to work with?
Sometimes it tends to be the other way around these days. Artists choose me, but I’m always looking for a great song. I’m always looking for a great musician. Of course I’m always thinking “Is this going to be the new Beatles?”. The new Led Zeppelin - I would love to find. Where is the next Led Zeppelin? Where is a band that even sounds anything like Led Zeppelin or Bad Company or any of the great bands from the 60′s or 70′s? They just don’t seem to exist. They don’t seem to stay together long enough to fully exist anyway. I mean, bands are really difficult to be in and difficult to get along with if you’re a member of a band so it takes a lot of work to make a band successful and I don’t think people work at it enough.
Basically, I try to clear my head and I listen to the artist hoping it’s going to be something I like and something I think I can add to; that’s more the case. If a band or an artist does come up and their sound is great and everything seems fine, the arrangement is all there and there’s not much for me to do then that’s great, but obviously not great from my point of view.
So, I’m looking for all sorts of things when I listen to a new artist for the first time. Working with Music XRay, I’m working with bands from Australia, the U.S, Canada, South America, South Africa, all over the world really. There does seem to be a common element in music when it comes to rock music. We all seem to like the same things, which is a great feeling, really. Coming up to nearly 60 years old, it’s not something I imagined would happen. None of us imagined when we were in our 20′s that the new generation would in any way like the music that we liked. To be in this era where everybody writes down their favourite band and it’s Led Zeppelin and we’re still talking about bands and rock music. It’s a great thing, really, and I’m just happy to be in it.
Very few people seem to understand the music industry. Can you leave us with some advice for anyone looking to follow their dreams and make music their career?
It’s a very wide subject, isn’t it (the music industry)? I do skype conferences with music students of all ages, but people are seeming to wait until older and older ages before they even start to learn. I say it’s best to start as early as possible. I started in the music business when I was 15 and I don’t think you can start early enough. I also think that it’s important to know as early as possible which area of the music business that you want to join, and to get into that and to learn all about that and not try to learn every facet of it or learn what everyone else’s jobs are. Admittedly, if you want to become a record producer it’s good to learn engineering. It’s good to have a grounding in that, but if you know that you’re a great guitarist and you love playing guitar I think it’s best to stick to learning that instrument and doing it the best you can.
Jimmy Page, I mean, he was one of the top session musicians at age 15 or 16. He had been playing since he was a little boy. He wanted to play that guitar and know absolutely everything about it. Of course, he became a really good record producer and got into that side of things, but still, he was learning and wanted to put together a great band. A lot of the musicians that I’ve worked with…Paul Rogers just wanted to be a great singer. I find that some of the new bands that are great tend to specialize. Coming back to the question, that’s what I think. It’s good to find out early on what you’re going to be best at and then honing in on that. Obviously if it’s a musician then that’s getting together with other musicians, getting your craft together, writing great songs.
People tend to work too much on their own these days. Sometimes you can’t do everything yourself. Sometimes you’re going to need a lyricist even if you’re a great songwriter like Elton John. His lyrics weren’t good at all when I first worked with him before he met Bernie Taupin. Sometimes you have to work with others in order to get it even better. It’s a great music industry, still. Get into it as soon as possible, I say.
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Stuart Epps has announced that he'll be returning to LA to run lectures and produce artists in Los Angeles through ARTISTHEAD for a limited time. If you are interested in experiencing the genius at work on your tracks, please email us in advance and we will review your request.
Legendary LED ZEPPELIN producer, STUART EPPS Joins ARTISTHEAD, adding even more value to the new music business.
Added on April 2, 2011
The legendary LED ZEPPELIN producer, STUART EPPS Joins ARTISTHEAD, adding even more value to the new music business.
STUART EPPS, AKA - The Man With The Golden Ears, Has joined the ARTISTHEAD team, proving that artists at any level of their career can now compete with the majors in terms of quality and in many cases, making money.
Producer Epps' partial client list includes - Led Zeppelin, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Barry White, Oasis, Jeff Beck, Bill Wyman, Bad Company, The Firm, Twisted Sister, Mick Fleetwood, George Michael, and Robbie Williams, just to name a few.
Stuart has been in the music business virtually all of his life. His musical career began in 1967 as a 15-year old office junior at Dick James Music. He quickly moved up the industry ladder to become Chief Engineer at DJM Studios. He later toured the USA with Elton John as personal assistant. Epps was involved from the start when Elton's producer, Gus Dudgeon, built The Mill Studios on the banks of the Thames, near Maidenhead, England. It was not long before Epps became Chief Engineer, Studio Manager and Producer.
Stuart then became Jimmy Page's house engineer when he purchased the studio. Many classic Page albums came out of that five-year period including, Led Zeppelin's CODA, the Death Wish 2 soundtrack, and the Firm albums. In recent years he has continued to work with big name artists to great acclaim and is helping a host of promising new and up-and-coming artists to sound their best, both on demos and full studio productions.
Experienced from working with the very best at the top of the industry and with a real love for music, Stuart has an intuitive sense for knowing what will make a track sound most authentic and he has a deep understanding of musician's needs, with clearheaded approach to getting the job done.
THIS IS THE INTERVIEW WHICH APPEARS IN THE NEW COLLEGE MAGAZINE
Looking back at influential producers in Pop music history over the past 40 years, there is one name that cannot be overlooked ,Stuart Epps. Starting out as an errand boy at Dick James Music, he worked his way into becoming one of the most important producers in the music industry. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and Oasis are only a few of the names on Epps list of credits.
The „Flower Power“ era – and a 15-year-old music fanatic living right in the midst of it. Just out of school, Stuart Epps landed a job which was to influence the rest of his life. He took his first step into the music business as an errand boy for Dick James, the man who discovered the Beatles. Stuart says about the beginnings of his career: “Even though I was only the errand boy, I had stepped into an exciting world”. With a lot of ambition he worked his way up through being a disc cutter / tape copier and assistant engineer to the position of producer in only two years. During that time he became friends with the still relatively unknown Elton John and his manager Steve Brown and decided to become part of his career. At 18 years of age, he accompanied Elton John as his personal assistant on his US tour and experienced Elton’s sky rocketing career at first hand. Stuart was also A&R Manager for Rocket Records where he also co-managed Kiki Dee. In 1974, producer Gus Dudgeon asked him if he would like to work in his studio – the now legendary Mill Studios – which he was just in the process of building. “Construction took two years and resulted in the most noble, and most modern studio of its time”, says Stuart. There he rediscovered his true passion for recording and producing. “To experience an album or a song taking shape from the demo version to the final master is a great feeling”, Stuart said. He worked on many projects with artists including Elton John and Chris Rea. Later, Jimmy Page bought the studio in the early 80’s and Stuart became the Studio Manager and began to work with Heavy Rock artists like Led Zeppelin.
After gathering enough experience, he took over Alvin Lee’s private studio “Wheeler End” in 1994 and turned it into a residential commercial studio. Among his customers were John Leckie (Beatles, Stone Roses, Muse) and Craig Leon (The Ramones, Blondie). He also worked on his projects with Oasis, Robbie Williams and Paul Weller. Up to this day, Stuart Epps is actively involved in the music business and also instructs students at the SAE in Oxford He says: ”I have always felt privileged to have a career that I am passionate about”.
You are a role model for many people. Who were or are your role models and what makes them so special?
My very good friend and great producer Gus Dudgeon is the very first to come to mind. He was a unique arranger who, after hearing a song, could mould it into an unbelievable record. He was sensitive to the artists’ needs and was able to get the very best out of them with al lot of humour. Gus was very thorough in everything he did. The quality of a production was always of utmost importance to him, regardless of how much time or money it took to do it. To be able to work with such a great producer and to have him as a friend as well, was one of the best things in my life and my musical career. Unfortunately, he and his wife died in an auto accident. But I always think about him as I work in the studio and try to incorporate his knowledge into my productions
What does a typical workday in the life of Stuart Epps look like?
That depends on the current project. The best thing about my work is that every day is different. Every artist I work with is different and that is reflected in my working methods. A normal workday may mean working in my studio at home, recording a 100-piece orchestra in a concert hall or producing a heavy metal band in Brazil. Even though I have been recording and producing for 40 years, I still continuously discover new ways to achieve the best results.
Today, costs need to be cut in every area, even production. As they say, time is money. Time and money are often no longer so abundantly available and that results in tighter competition in the market. How does that affect your productions?
It is true that recording budgets have been cut drastically. I do a lot of work in my studio at home. Of course, I still prefer to record in large studios, especially when dealing with a band project. In such cases, I use studios that offer reasonable prices. It is a shame to have to see so many good studios being forced to shut down because of shrinking budgets in every sector of the business, especially for studio musicians. Regardless of how good you are, it is very difficult to make a living as a musician these days.
The founding of SAE, has made it easier for people to study audio technology. Of course, even after graduation, one is still „wet behind the ears“. What tips would you give our students who are entering into the business? For example, what is the best way to deal with musicians to get the best possible result?
I have been a great fan of SAE from the very beginning. At one point, my assistant quit on me out of the blue and with no warning. I was up to my neck in work. I had heard about SAE and I thought I would try to get one of the students to help me out. His technical skills were really good and one would have thought he had worked in studios for years. He immediately got a job offer from Elton’s company. After that I worked with another SAE graduate who was even better. He still helps me out on occasions. I wasn’t really able to teach my assistant much during the sessions. In addition, today’s equipment is so technically more challenging that it is Vital for students to get the sort of training that SAE has to offer in its many great studios. Having been given that invaluable studio experience and with those sounds in your head, I believe that wherever you are recording in the future, you will be able to make the most of the equipment available.
How to deal with musicians is a touchy question. In my opinion, a big part of the producer’s job is to create a comfortable working atmosphere and to find the balance between giving necessary instructions and catering to the wishes of the artist. Developing that “feeling” doesn’t come overnight or with the first session, but workshops are available to help, such as the one I offer, where helpful experiences can be shared.
In your opinion, how does the future of the music industry look over the next 10 years?
Every one is saying that the music industry is on the brink of ruin and will never again be what it once was. I don’t agree. I think that the future looks better than ever for young, upcoming musicians, producers and audio technicians. The changes in the industry need to be accepted. Today it is literally possible to record your song in your bedroom, publish it worldwide on the Internet and sell it at the same time. It was always difficult, if not impossible to get large record stores to buy albums from new artists and put them on their shelves. Believe me I have tried! These stores are relics of the past and have been replaced by online downloads, so instead of sending demos to major record companies, where they go under in a sea of thousands, today one can take the whole thing into one’s own hands. Samples can be sent to online radio stations all over the world – and there are masses of them. In addition, live music is more popular than ever – another possibility to promote one’s music. The future outlook for students in the music industry is anything but bleak. The important thing to succeed is to stay focused and to do your work with passion. There is a lot more competition than ever before, so it is very important, in my opinion, to have professional training before jumping into this business Still, I consider this to be the most exciting, challenging, and fulfilling industry there is!
What does your future look like?
Right now, I am working on several projects at once and I am amazed at how much fun I still have working on new songs. I used to think that I would grow out of recording and producing at some point when I got older and that it wouldn’t interest me so much. It’s just the contrary! You will be hearing quite a bit more from me! Just recently, I gave a lecture at the SAE in Oxford and was surprised at the curiosity of the young students – all those questions about analogue technology. They wanted to know the smallest details about how recordings used to be made and produced. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to let them look over my shoulder during the productions of Jimmy Page, Oasis or Robbie Williams, but now, with the equipment in the SAE Studios, it is possible to create similar recording situations, so that students can actually watch (and listen!).
I hope to be able to do things like that more often in the future !!!
Acclaimed record producer and studio engineer recalls how an aspiring young
composer named Reg Dwight crushed his dreams of being a Songwriter in seconds.
written by - Paul Watson
After what Epps describes as "a mad beginning in life" developing a passion for singing at just three years old and listening intently with his father to the first broadcast of Journey Into Stereo Sound - the first stereophonic record (of which he still owns a copy) at the age of six, he feels that it was inevitable that he would end up in the music business.
"I was hearing sounds for the first time and it just got my imagination going," Epps explains. "By the time I was nine years old, I was experimenting with microphones and my Dad's tape machine; I grew up not only loving music and playing records, but recording sounds as well - which to me was just magical."
Stuart Epps 'official' career in music began in 1967 at Dick James Music (DJM) on New Oxford Street. Aged only 15 at the time, he'd been persuaded by his friend Clive Franks, who was the record cutter at DJM at the time, to leave school and apply to be a runner. After getting the job, he found himself smack in the middle of the industry at one of its most exciting times.
After getting a foot in the door, Epps eventually climbed what he calls "the DJM hierarchy" and began engineering his first records. One of the aspiring writers at the time was 19-year-old Reg Dwight, who Epps describes as "a pretty strange guy with crazy hair who wore Noddy T-shirts".
"I just took to him straight away. We never called him Elton [John] - it was always Reg; and when he first sat down and played us a song, I had never heard anything like it," he explains. "At the time I thought I could write songs, but after that I changed my direction there and then."
Epps began working in the demo studio at DJM and in a short time had learned everything about it. At 18 years old, he found himself producing his first record with a band called Birds of a Feather, which he did at Trident Studios, with Elton John as the session pianist and Rick Wakeman on the keyboards.
Although it was a successful project, Epps was still interested in the business side of the industry and became Elton John's PA, thrown in at the deep end of a three month American tour.
After that, everything began to change; Elton's next record, Elton John (The Black Album), was his 'big one' featuring huge orchestral numbers Your Song and Sixty Years On. This project saw Epps take on a project management role away from the console and work closely with now legendary Producer Gus Dudgeon - again at Trident Studios.
Epps describes Elton John (The Black Album) as the turning point in his career, because being involved - albeit co-ordinating and not mixing - reminded him that he wanted to get back behind the desk.
He had formed a close friendship with Dudgeon and Elton and by 1974 was involved in Dudgeon's vision in building the ultimate recording studio. That vision spawned The Mill in Cookham, where he became Dudgeon's (and Elton's) chief engineer.
"It took two years to build the studio and Gus [Dudgeon] partly designed its 42-Channel MCI desk himself," says Epps. "There was no such thing as nearfield monitors; we'd use little 5" transistor speakers that were on the old tape machines and there was no mid-way between the big ones and those."
In 1978, Elton returned from a trip to New York with a pair of Auratone speakers. Epps says they sounded horrible, but because they could take a lot of level, began popping up in every studio around the world.
"They had no high end, no low end - just a transistor type sound," says Epps, "but they did catch on long before the [Yamaha] NS10s; I still use the NS10s today as reference monitors."
The main monitors at The Mill were off-the-shelf JBL LE15Bs, which were powered by Crown DC300 amplifiers. The minute they were wired in, it was deduced that they weren't loud enough, so another set of LE15Bs was acquired resulting in a custom JBL monitoring system.
"We created these monitors built with two bass drivers in each side which at the time was pretty unique. We biamped and triamped the speakers, and then we turned it on and it was ear bleedingly loud ," reveals Epps. "Originally, the monitoring was going to be built for Quad, so we also had two at the back, but Quad didn't take off so we were left with this massive monitoring from the front instead."
The Mill had four Echo Plates, digital delay lines, the first AMS digital reverb, and an Eventide Harmoniser - made famous by Hendrix in his early records. The Mill was used to record a host of Elton John albums and new artists of the day including Chris Rea and Lindisfarne.
Today, Epps works from a modest home studio set-up, but manages to achieve master quality recordings with limited resources. He puts this down to the lessons he learned at both DJM and The Mill.
Epps works from Cool Edit Pro with just a stereo digital interface. His monitoring system consists of two large - and very loud - Tannoy speakers set in Lockwood cabinets and a pair of Yamaha NS10s.
"Cool Edit Pro is just like a multi-track recorder. It does have facilities and I do use the effects, though they're not nearly as advanced as Pro Tools - but I kind of like that," says Epps. "I have my ear on the way I used to record analogue, and funnily enough I find that my recordings keep that feel; I don't mind if there's too much level - distortion can sound quite nice actually. My focus is on how it would be if I had the big studio with all the gear."
The main vocal mic Epps uses is a fairly battered AKG C414 which has had the likes of Bill Wyman, Georgie Fame and Gary Brooker singing (and blowing smoke) through it; Epps absolutely swears by it.
"I have used loads of other mics - some incredible ones. But, I don't know, they all seemed to lack the warmth of this 414," he insists.
When recording vocals, Epps explains that he doesn't tend to use any compression going in - which he admits "is a bit mad"; a DBX 160 is his modern day weapon of choice post-recording, though in the old days, he'd be clambering over a bunch of Fairchild valve compressors. He will often use up to 20 tracks for vocals and then compile them - a technique he learned from Dudgeon; the idea being that every word of the vocal is the best it can possibly be.
"If it's a good quality vocalist, then using the 414 straight onto the digital interface isn't a big problem. I record it flat and afterwards when it's all compiled, I EQ it, compress it and all the rest of it," he explains. "The main thing is getting the performance and making it all happen; I like quite heavy compression post-performance."
One of the challenges he faces in his current working environment is recording drums. He has, however, come up with a solution - in the shape of a self-crafted wooden annex. According to Epps, wood is a good start in accommodating any drum kit because it's not entirely unreflective and it's what drum boxes are made out of after all. He believes it allows for a slightly more natural sound, preferring it to a totally dead space.
Epps chooses not to use gates on the drums and won't compress anything going in if he can avoid it. His mic set-up consists of an AKG D112 in the kick, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, a Shure SM57 on the snare and a pair of Neumanns for the overheads. Epps explains that his first attempts at recording in the annex were fairly arduous to say the least.
"I literally put a digital multi-track in the drum room, recorded the drums onto that, then bounced each track at a time back onto the computer - a hell of a task - but it did work," he says, "The next time, I thought 'this is ridiculous' so I decided to record them stereo - which was taking a bit of a risk, but that's what I did; I put a little mixer out there, plugged all of the microphones into the mixer, and then took two tracks out of there into my stereo interface."
When recording acoustic and electric guitars, Epps uses his trusty AKG C414; either on the sound box or on the amplifier. He firmly believes though that without a quality instrument and performance, there's no point turning up.
Considering the significant downsize in space and equipment, listening to Epps recordings was remarkably eye-opening. He says he misses the "seat of the pants mixing" that he was so used to on the MCI console, but that grass roots recording methods like these have made him open his mind to the music a little more.
"When everything was on tap, I did used to get carried away. I listen back to some recordings from years ago and often wish I hadn't put so much effect on a certain sound," Epps explains, "whereas here, I find that with less equipment the sound comes out a little bit better and less messed with; so maybe in some ways that's a good thing."
"I used to think it was the magic of the studio when we were in The Mill, but the truth of it is you can make magic in any room with minimal equipment if the music's great; and the key is to bring the professionalism to the room; 'This isn't a bedroom or a living room, this is a professional recording studio!' you've got to think in that way or it won't happen."
Stuart Epps Toured America with Elton John, Produced and Engineered Records for . Led Zeppelin ,Elton John. Bill Wyman and Paul Rodgers and is Now Focusing on the Next Generation – Part 1 of 2
Stuart Epps is a man with a 40-year career in studio engineering and production. With his own studio now set up in Cookham, he shares some of his many rock star stories from the past.
"I'm sure they thought there that I had a lookalike agency.
"I would go in the pub with Noel and Liam Gallagher, Robbie Williams, Mark Owen - they must have thought 'surely these can't be the real people'."
But they were. Cookham's Stuart Epps was running Wheeler End Studios near High Wycombe at the time and would take his artists down to the Brickmaker's Arms down the road.
Stuart Epps in his Cookham studio
"We went in there with Liam one day," Stuart recalls, "he only has to have one glass or two glasses of wine and he gets drunk. He gets extremely loud, swearing all over the place and very lairy but he was very loveable. Always chatty."
Stuart, 56, has enjoyed a successful career as studio engineer and producer for the last 40 years, and sits in his new studio in Cookham recounting this story - one of many of his rock anecdotes.
His work has taken him all over the world, including a stint as Elton John's PA and setting up the world-famous Mill Studios in Maidenhead. But for now he's momentarily transported back to 1999 when Oasis were recording Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants.
"Liam was just brilliant, I got on with him straight away, he was much more outward and we all had a good time."
Stuart Epps on Liam Gallagher
"Noel had come on his own to the studio. He wasn't particularly friendly - he was okay, just sort of polite. He brought all this incredible equipment down, more than I'd ever seen in my life: 200 guitars.
"Then one afternoon he said 'that's it, it's all coming to an end we have to pack up.'"
It transpired Liam had discovered Noel was at Wheeler End and Noel feared his younger brother would trash the place.
"We just assumed Noel must have told his brother about coming to the studio," says Stuart, "but apparently he was doing this on his own and Liam didn't know anything about it."
A couple of hours later Liam arrived. He walked in and, in contrast to Noel's expectations, was impressed with the psychedelic-looking studio, describing it as being like "Jimi Hendrix's bedroom".
"Elton, 'Reg', was always off the wall, like a Spike Milligan of music really."
Stuart Epps on Elton John
"Liam was just brilliant," says Stuart, "I got on with him straight away, he was much more outward and we all had a good time."
And that's not all. Oasis form but part of a long line of legendary artists Stuart has worked with.
Stuart began his career working working with Dick James - The Beatles music publisher - after leaving school at 15.
One of the song-writers there was a then little-known aspiring artist called Reginald Dwight - later to become Elton John.
Elton John in the 1970s
Stuart and 'Reg' became friends, with Stuart helping the performer recording his early demos. Stuart then started work as an assistant to producer Steve Brown, who formed the DJM label and helped put "Elton's career into shape".
Then, at aged 18, Stuart was asked to be Elton John's personal assistant on his second American tour in 1970.
"I'd never even been to America before," says Stuart. "I'd turned up at the airport with Elton, with the band, to now go on a three-month tour of America so it was pretty crazy stuff."
He remembers: "We didn't have limousines at that time, just normal hire cars and the gigs were 300-seater theatres, so no massive halls or anything.
"It was new to all of us, we were all youngsters in the States and it was an amazing eye-opener, especially for Elton. And Elton really took off, specifically in LA at the Troubadour where people like Bob Dylan came to see him."
And Stuart was at the forefront of witnessing the transformation of Elton John - the singer and piano player who barely talked to the audience - into Elton John the flamboyant star.
"Elton, 'Reg', was always off the wall, like a Spike Milligan of music really," says Stuart.
"He would dress to make you laugh or to impress. He'd come in wearing a Noddy shirt or he'd always wear something outrageous or outlandish.
"He was actually a very shy guy so it was some sort of way of getting over your shyness. If you dress like Father Christmas you're going to get a laugh."
Stuart has worked with Noel Gallagher + Jimmy Page
He adds: "In America he knew that this is the place where he's either going to do or die and make it or not. So his thing was 'I'm just going to get noticed here', even if he falls flat on his face.
"I can remember very specifically the first gig where he just stopped playing the piano and got off up the piano and started banging a tambourine and trying to get the audience clapping along. It was a bit embarrassing to start off with.
"And when he started wearing all those outrageous clothes that was embarrassing as well, but it was all his idea, he just wanted to outrageous and be like all his rock 'n' roll idols."
The Mill Studio
Stuart then went on to work closely with Elton's producer Gus Dudgeon, helping him build the world famous Mill studios in Cookham in 1974.
"It was an amazing experience," says Stuart. "It was Gus's dream to one day produce the best studio in the world. He bought this old Mill property in Cookham and it was only supposed to take six months to build but it took two years to build.
"Maybe it was his way of keeping sane, but he would keep a record of everything."
Stuart Epps on Bill Wyman
"It was only supposed to cost £200,000. It ended up costing a million pounds, which in 1974 was maybe 10 or £15 million now."
At The Mill Stuart worked with lots of emerging artists, including a young Chris Rea in 1978.
"We'd listened to his demos and very much liked his songs and his voice," says Stuart. "That was one of the first projects we did, an album called Whatever Happened To Benny Santini. There's a song on there called Fool If You Think It's Over, which I was lucky enough to sing on, and that became a big hit."
Also at the Mill Elton John recorded his album Single Man, featuring Song For Guy, and legends such as George Harrison from The Beatles and Bill Wyman from The Rolling Stones would also pop in.
"I worked on and off with Bill Wyman for about 20 years. What's funny about Bill," Stuart reveals, "was that he very fastidious about writing everything down.
"Maybe it was his way of keeping sane, but he would keep a record of everything.
"So when we were working together he would have a pad next to him. Even one day, which was when I thought 'this has gone too far', he picked the phone up and was obviously talking to his wife. Then he went over and wrote over on the book 'wife rang, 2.30pm."
Rod Argent of The Zombies at Stuart's new studio
Gus Dudgeon sold The Mill in 1981 to Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, who kept Stuart on as studio engineer and producer.
"This is where we mixed the last Zep album and Jimmy did the film music to Death Wish 3. Jimmy also had a band called The Firm with Paul Rogers and we did that album.
"He's an amazing producer, quite a shy guy," remembers Stuart. "He played the guitar with a bow and was very inventive with effects. He was very interesting for me to work with."
Stuart's new studio
Having worked at all the aforementioned studios, as well as Abbey Road and Capitol Studios in Hollywood, Stuart has now set up his own studio in Cookham.
He is currently working with new artists such as Claire Toomey and The Blue Bishops, for which The Zombies' Rod Argent came into Stuart's studio to play the keyboards.
Speaking about his 40-year career, Stuart says: "When we were all 18 you kind of thought music was something that you'd grow out of and that it was a young person's game. The mad thing is that everyone's still doing it."
Sound On Sound Magazine, 1994
Chris Rea and engineer Stuart Epps talk to MARK CUNNINGHAM about the making of Espresso Logic, life at The Mill studios and their approach to recording Rea's work.
The huge posters of Grand Prix scenes and model racing car ornaments displayed around the control room of Studio 2 at The Mill are a dead giveaway as to who is currently resident at this legendary rural Berkshire retreat. It was here that confirmed motor-racing fanatic Chris Rea recorded his first two albums -- Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? and Deltics -- in the late '70s, with engineer Stuart Epps and producer (and former Mill owner) Gus Dudgeon.
Some 14 years later, Rea has not only returned to The Mill, booking Studio 2 for a whole year up to April of this year, but has also renewed his working relationship with Stuart Epps. The first publicly-heard fruit from Rea's ongoing project is the latest album, Espresso Logic. He is now midway through recording a largely orchestral-type soundtrack for a film he is scripting about the Ferrari.
Workaholic Rea's block booking of The Mill has given him so much space to record as and when he wishes that there was already another album's worth of material completed before the November '93 release of Espresso Logic. "I was planning to hand over another album to the record company before Christmas '93, but Espresso Logic would probably still have been in the charts" he says.
Surprisingly, Rea had no initial plans to release Espresso Logic until his label, East West, saw pound signs after hearing a few completed tracks, as he told me: "It was never going to be an album. We finished the European tour in April last year, and we were told by the record company, 'Banana Skin has been very successful, thank you very much, we don't need to see you again for two years.' But I didn't like the idea of that at all, you know. It's like being made redundant. So I started working on writing a film and during the course of that I was writing songs to go with it, because it's something I do. It was only decided in July or August by East West, on hearing some of the tracks, that they'd put it out in the autumn. We already had over 30 complete 4- or 5-minute pieces, but they didn't originally have a purpose. It wasn't like I was getting up in the morning worrying that I hadn't yet written a certain type of song for the album. So we had what we call the Eurovision Song Contest and awarded points for each number. That's how we whittled them down to 10 tracks."
Rea's occasionally sweet, frequently burning slide guitar dominates throughout, but Espresso Logic is also notable for the return to Rea's music of Davy Spillane's evocative Uillean pipes, which played a major part on Rea's 1987 album, Dancing With Strangers. Stuart Epps gave the engineer's perspective of working with these classic sounds: "I was wary because I hadn't recorded Uillean pipes before, but it was quite simple. I just rigged up a U87 about 6-8 inches above his head. It was recorded very quickly -- and what a sound! Chris suggested I have everything ready for Davy so that all he had to do was walk in, play and be recorded. He told me that Davy would give it his all within the first couple of takes, so I had to be on my toes to capture that performance. He moves around quite a bit when he's playing, so in a recording situation you hear some interesting, almost 3D, phasing.
"Chris would normally use his battered pink Strat (which he affectionately calls Pinky) for all the electric slide work. On some of the tracks, Chris simply DI'd into the desk via his effects pedal board, which mainly consists of Boss effects. For the slide sound he generally uses a little distortion and a small amount of delay. Alternatively, we have used two amplifier setups and miked them."
Sure enough, lurking behind the control room door is the Rea gear -- a Fender Pro Reverb combo and a rather old, beaten-up Fender Band Master head and cabinet. "We close-mic each cabinet with a Neumann U87 and also use two B&K ambience mics, about six feet overhead and away from them, to capture a little room ambience," says Epps. "I've found that the DI sound of Chris' slide isn't a lot different to the miked-up version. We try to avoid drowning the guitars and other instruments in effects -- it's not to Chris' taste at all. We rely solely on the limited use of the old faithful Quantec and an EMT echo plate -- and that also goes for the drums."
What were the early sessions like?
"What Chris normally did was to build up a track on his own, using the Linn, then a vocal and some guitars and keyboards, which were normally the Yamaha grand piano, Roland piano and Proteus [for strings]. For most of the tracks, we recorded several versions with different tempos or keys before he was happy. Then the band [Max Middleton, keyboards; Robert Ahwai, rhythm guitar; Martin Ditcham, drums; Sylvan Marc, bass] was brought in, either here at The Mill or at Outside Studios."
Most of the vocals were recorded at The Mill. The only lead vocal done at Outside was on 'Red'.
"That track was recorded more or less completely live, with Chris' simultaneous live vocal," says Epps. "On many occasions, after the basic drum and guitar tracks were recorded, Chris would say 'Right, I'm just gonna bung down a vocal'. Nine times out of 10, that would remain the master vocal.
"We were very pleased with the vocal sound as well. Chris likes simplicity and refrains from using harmonisers, choosing to manually double-track vocals where necessary, and using only a Lexicon 480 and Roland Dimension D chorus. Chris always uses the same mic -- a Neumann U47 -- but he absolutely hates using a pop shield. He always says that he can't bear the idea of singing through ladies' underwear! Psychologically, I think it helps the performer if he can actually see the mic, but it can make the engineer's job a little difficult."
JUST ADD WATER
Shortly after 'Julia' was chosen as the trailer single to Espresso Logic, it was quickly realised that there were no new recordings available for the B-side or CD bonus tracks. As Rea insists on indefinitely shelving most tracks which never make it on to an album, there was no option but to record something very quickly. Rea's story about the making of 'Jordan 191' is a testimony to his no-fuss impulsive streak:
"'Jordan 191' happened literally as a result of a phone call at about 3.10pm one day. I was asked 'Have you done the B-side yet?' 'Er, no I haven't!' 'Oh shit! 3.45pm is the deadline 'cause it's being printed at the factory tomorrow.' So I ask how long it'll take to get the biker over, and he says that the biker's on his way already. He'll be here at 3.45! So 'Jordan 191' was literally created and recorded within 15 minutes. I said 'For God's sake Martin, grab a hold of those drums and give me something.' I just picked up my guitar and went for it."
"That was a quick session!" laughs Epps. "Chris tends to put things down fairly quickly anyway -- he doesn't hang around. He doesn't spend weeks and weeks poring over each note and vocal inflection. It's all about what he's feeling at that precise time. On this occasion, though, he just worked even quicker and we had all the machines ready for a quick take, mixing as we went along.
Stuart Epps: "Good records are not necessarily about spot-on timing, state-of-the-art technology and all the rest. Those elements are not responsible for creating a mood."
"Chris' B-sides have a very interesting bareness and honesty about them which a lot of people like," says Epps. "They remind me of the demos that he used to play to me when we were working on his early albums. He used to record every instrument himself, including real drums, and they were great. When we'd go to record the master versions, they would obviously benefit from the better technology, arrangements and the best musicians around. But what they wouldn't have was the atmosphere of Chris' original demos. You can say that about a great many artists, I suppose, but it was more acute with Chris. I agree with him that good records are not necessarily about spot-on timing, state-of-the-art technology and all the rest. Those elements are not responsible for creating a mood. It's in the delivery. Tempo fluctuations, for instance, can often add to the atmosphere. It's the old school way of thinking, but for me it works. Personally, I think it was a good few years before Chris was able to prove to people what he was capable of as a recording artist and when he was ultimately given free rein to do what he wanted, it was good!"
One of the most interesting, or at least commercial, results from the recent Mill sessions has to be the Rea-penned 'If I Were You', a vocal collaboration with Elton John which appears on the rocket man's Duets collection. It appears that Stuart Epps triggered the eventual format of this new album when he suggested to Elton's management that Chris Rea might be an interesting vocal partner. Epps explains: "Being close to Elton and his manager, I was aware of the original plan for Elton to simply compile all his existing duet recordings for an album, such as the Kiki Dee and George Michael hits. There was some talk of him recording a couple of new songs and I mentioned that I'd been working with Chris and he might be up for it. His manager said 'Why not ask Chris to write something?'. The day after I told Chris about all this, he came in with this great song and recorded an absolutely brilliant demo. Elton was knocked out and he came over to The Mill to record the track with Chris. I think that, because of the wonderful result, Elton was inspired to seek out other artists and it became an all-new album. Chris and I also worked on Elton's only solo track, the misleadingly-titled 'Duets For One'."
The mixing didn't always go as planned, as Epps reveals: "Something very strange happened at Outside. We'd done a mix and played it back the next day, and it started off OK, then began to speed up very gradually. Obviously, when the mix was happening, something must have slowed down the 2-track machine. If that had been the master mix and the only version, we would have been completely screwed. Fortunately, it had all been logged on to the computer and it was easy to recall. We never did find out how it happened."
Over the years at The Mill, Epps has witnessed some outrageous examples of studio life, as befits the personae of many of the musical giants he has worked with. "There were some strange happenings during the period when Jimmy Page owned the studio." [Page bought The Mill from Gus Dudgeon around 1979 and quickly turned it into a lucrative commercial business.] "I remember working with Paul Rodgers here. In the middle of one night, while we were asleep, Paul was woken by the sound of drums coming from Studio 2. He got up and investigated but there was no one there. Paul wasn't the only person to experience this weirdness. Black crows were also seen flying, kamikaze-style, into windows, and I actually saw the remains of one bird all over the outside of Studio 2's window one morning. Horrible! I suppose that may have had something to do with Jimmy's reported dabblings in the occult. Nothing like that ever happened again after he sold up. Things are very pleasant these days and it's an absolute pleasure to work here."
The inspiration behind the album title originates from an afternoon spent in an Italian espresso bar, watching politicians on TV. "It was interesting to listen to their comments," says Rea. "Because they had nothing in common with the dialogue of the folk in the bar. It had never looked to me as far apart as it did that day. Somebody had mentioned people's logic and I just used poetic licence and said, well it's espresso logic."
Rea's cinematic imagination almost got him carried away with an aborted album introduction. "We originally had a beginning that had a telephone conversation between computer experts, trying to fathom why all their computers had jammed. The only thing they had in common was their insides all smelled of coffee and someone had noticed the coffee was coming from within the computers. No one had actually spilled anything. But it all got a bit long winded and was almost becoming a film script. Then somebody heard the track without dialogue and said the slide guitar, piano, pipes and the Italian bit sounded so nice on its own, why not just leave it? The intro became too much for people to get a hold of. I tested it out on a couple of people I knew and it was about 14 or 15 plays before they understood the intertwining ideas. Bloody typical!"
Espresso Logic was recorded on 48-track analogue without Dolby (most unusual these days) and mixed down to half-inch tape with Dolby SR at Outside Studios. Amazingly, much of the equipment Rea is currently employing for his Mill project is identical to that used back in 1977, when he first came to the Mill to record Benny Santini and the international hit, 'Fool (If You Think It's Over)'.
Both Rea and Epps are perfectly happy with the results achieved with the old Studio 2 MCI desk. Epps says: "We're even using the same 24-track tape machines. What's interesting is that, for Chris' music, his voice and the sounds he likes to get, this desk is ideally suited and is actually better to work with than SSL or the latest Neve console. There are obvious benefits in working with computerised desks, especially at the mixing stage. Chris likes to mix himself and he does like the automation that's available either at Outside or the main studio here at The Mill. But this setup is ideal for recording. I think it's important not to let technology rule you -- just use what you need and no more."
Epps' musical career began in 1967 as a 15-year old office junior at Dick James Music. He quickly moved up the industry ladder to become Chief Engineer at DJM Studios, then later toured the USA with Elton John as personal assistant. Epps was involved from the start when Elton's producer, Gus Dudgeon, built The Mill on the banks of the Thames, near Maidenhead. It was not long before Dudgeon asked Epps to become Chief Engineer, Studio Manager and Producer. "It was an incredibly exciting time. There was a lot of interest in Quad around that time and the studio was originally going to be a remix suite for Quad with an overdub booth. Back then, Studio 2 wasn't even thought of -- it was still the garage," says Epps.
"Chris Rea's second album, Deltics, was the first album I engineered completely on my own and I suppose my engineering career really took off from there."
Some of Epps' most noteworthy customers include Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Mick Fleetwood, George Michael, Bill Wyman, Cliff Richard, and the aforementioned Elton John.