An Interview with Producer Stephen Street
Stephen Street has remained at the forefront of indie music production for over quarter of a century. He has engineered and produced some of the most celebrated guitar albums of the past 3 decades, such as The Smiths' 'The Queen Is Dead', and Blur's 'Parklife' and 'Blur'. More recently, his production of bands such as Kaiser Chiefs, The Courteeners and Pete Doherty has firmly continued his legacy as one of the most influential producers of his generation.
Shortly after we launched his new Programming room, The Bunker, at Miloco's HQ in South London, we were thrilled to be able to sit down with Stephen to discuss the studio, his prolific catalogue of work and his personal thoughts on how the record industry has changed over the course of his career.
Hi Stephen. Thanks for your time. How are you and what have you been upto recently?
Very recently I’ve been working with a band called Life in Film. We did some tracking at Assault & Battery 2 and The Pool, and then I completed the mixing of the tracks in The Bunker. Before that I was on holiday, which I doubt is very interesting!
Also this year I’ve been working on the new Cranberries album. We tracked that in Toronto and then mixed it here in The Engine Room. They’re the main things I’ve been doing over the last few months.
I've also worked on the new Subways album which was recorded at Sofa Sound and mixed in the Engine Room. The band and i are really pleased with it and the lead single is picking up some good plays on radio.
I'm about to work with the Kaiser Chiefs again, which we'll be tracking in Assault & Battery 2 and I'm looking forward to that very much. After that, I should be continuing with Life in Film on their debut album.
How have things been going in your new studio at Miloco, The Bunker, and what attracted you to building the room at Miloco’s HQ?
I'm really enjoying being here because it's great to have a base of operations. When Olympic Studios closed (the studio where Stephen was previously based), I took a long time looking for somewhere, and thought this location was conducive to musical inspiration because it has history as a studio. Sometimes you see studios now that are setup in corners of office blocks or industrial estates, and they just don’t seem to be very inspiring locations to take musicians to work in.
The reason I liked the setup here at Miloco is that it reminds me of the setup at Olympic, in the sense that this is a proper recording studio. However it has also been subdivided into smaller rooms for producers and programmers to take, and because you’re surrounded by people who are in the same business it makes it a much better atmosphere to work in.
I obviously knew Siobhan from her time back at Olypmic, and I expressed to her that I was looking for somewhere and how frustrating it had been. Then I think she mentioned it to Nick and he invited me over to have a look at the location to see if I’d be interested. They were thinking of building a new room here anyway in what was the garage/storage space, and once I’d heard what he was intending to do I jumped at the chance. As I say, it gave me the impression of being in a building that would be inspiring to work in. I love the fact that you can talk to other producers and engineers about equipment, and you can borrow bits of kit if you need to. Everyone helps each other out and that’s a really priceless thing to have.
Is there a story behind the name of the studio, ‘The Bunker’…
Well, only in the sense that the studio space I was sharing with Cenzo (Townsend) at Olympic was in the basement, so we nicknamed it The Bunker. It was a name that I grew to cherish, and so when we built this new studio here, I thought it would be good to resurrect the name again.
Tell us a bit about the equipment you have in there, how are you enjoying your Audient console?
Well so much stuff now is mixed in the box, which I don’t particularly like. Obviously the advantages of it are the instant recalls, all these plugins at your fingertips, and so on and so forth. But I still prefer to mix out of the box if possible, and the Audient gives me this great possibility of having a very affordable desk with some great mic amps in it. There’s also a great stereo compressor across the mix buss, which is the same as it was on the old Audient desk I had with Cenzo back at Olympic.
It gives me 16 main faders to bring returns from my Protools system. Those faders can be written by MIDI information in a Protools session so I can get a completely accurate recall on my 16 faders. For mixing, I was impressed with the console's routing abilities. Although I might just be bringing everything down to 16 tracks, as it were, I'm still able to bring those tracks back up on the desk and insert external EQs and compression and so on. They are the things that are still integral to me sound-wise in a mix.
So then I’ve got my distressors here that I really like, the Urei 1178 which is basically two 1176s, the API EQ Lunchbox. So all those elements I can still patch across the mix in an Old School style, where you use parallel compression, because on the actual output of the desk, you can either route the 16 main faders to the stereo main buss, or there’s two stereo sub busses. There’s also 2 mono busses with a summing button so you can actually use the original signal and the compressed signal. You change the balance by changing the output of the compressor accordingly. So it’s really quite comprehensive, and for a very small footprint.
The other thing is that space is always at a premium in a room like this, and I decided very early on that the best thing to do would be to have a custom-made workstation for the room, into which everything could be put away. So I’ve got it so that all my compressors and EQs are on the left-hand side, and then on the right hand side I have the external reverb units. I’ve got an SPX 900 and a PCM 80. I still think the Lexicon reverbs are the best sounding ones out there, so it’s good to have that too. Then below them are the actual Protools IOs themselves.
I also decided to go for a patchbay. At first I thought maybe I’d go without before realizing its actually quite integral, you’re gonna need it! So after digging around at the back of the desk for too many weeks I decided to plum for one, and I think it’s a great thing to have. Again, that was built for me here by Miloco and I’m very pleased with it.
It was obviously important for you to include a booth for overdubbing. What do you find yourself mostly using it for?
Well I’m a producer who is known for recording real instruments and bands. At the original bunker at Olympic, we had a proper overdubbing area that was just about big enough to put drums in. This one unfortunately isn’t quite large enough for drums, but it’s big enough for me to record vocals, some percussion, guitars and so on. So it’s perfect - that is part and parcel of what I do. I’m not known for using lots of samples and keyboards, it’s not really my bag. Having said that there are a few keyboard modules here as well, a few old school bits and pieces – I’ve got the Micro Korg, the EMU Vintage Keys which is a great old module, the Proteus FX and the JV 1080. So there are those classic great instruments here as well that people want to use.
Besides The Bunker you’ve also been using a selection of other Miloco-run studios. Starting with Angelic Studios where you tracked and mixed the Viva Brother album. How does this studio compare with other residential studios you have worked in such as Jacobs where you famously worked on The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead?
I can honestly say, hand on heart, that Angelic is the best residential I have ever worked in. I loved it there and thought it was great. The rooms were fantastic – you’ve got a brilliant control room, and then a recording room on either side of the control room which are both very different from each other so you can get various different acoustics. We used the main higher hall for the drums, but with the screening you could really control the acoustics. And then the other room is choc-full of guitar amps, so the guitarist was in there.
The very clever thing that Toby has done at Angelic is that with the use of windows and glass, you can see right through from one area to the next. I was very impressed by that. It has obviously been built by a musician who loves music, and knows how to make a studio that will appeal to musicians. I thought it was an excellent place to work.
Did you get a chance to use any of Angelic’s backline collection when tracking the Viva Brother album?
Yeah, I mean the band had a certain amount of their own, but it was very useful to have further options when you wanted to get a particular tone out of an amp. So it was great to have that other stuff which didn't belong to the band. He had a great selection of microphones as well, which were used extensively.
And were there any favourite bits of outboard you had particular joy with over there?
Well Toby has the original PYE compressors over there, which are some very colourful sounding units. He has some great Neve mic pres that I liked to use - they were great for recording the drums through. It’s a very good room, and I recommend it highly.
Did the band enjoy it up there ?
Very much. It’s a good place to go and just concentrate on making the record. It wasn’t too far from London, so it’s not hard to get back up there on a Monday morning after the weekend, so that was straightforward. And they looked after us really well too.
You have also done some mixing in The Engine Room, mainly on the new Subways and Cranberries records. What do you feel are the main strengths of this mix room?
Well, I’m a big fan of mixing on SSLs. Ergonomically it’s such an easily laid out desk. The computer system is very simple to use. The Engine Room has an old desk which I believe was taken from Olympic, so I have an affinity with it having already made some records on it. Again, there’s some good outboard in there – good EQs and compressors. It’s nice to have access to a real plate as well, which it has. The monitoring is good and I like the Lavry convertors you’ve got in there as well. They’re very good.
I also like the fact that it’s got natural daylight in the room as well. I must admit it does help when you have long hours in the studio to have natural light rolling in from above through the skylights.
It’s a good mix room, very well equipped, and I’m more than happy to mix records in there.
How important do you feel it is that we try to keep commercial mixing studios open in an era where mixing-in-the-box is becoming ever more popular?
I think it’s incredibly important that these types of mix rooms don’t disappear. I think that there are certain genres of music where you can get away with mixing in the box – if it has come out of a box in the first place, it’s all been sampled, or the vocals have been very heavily auto-tuned. So a lot of the dance and R n’ B stuff, yeah I think you can get away with it. But, I don’t think its something that really helps when you’re recording acoustic instruments, and you’re balancing those and mixing those. And to get the depth and the air around things, I think its much better to bring those individual items back up the desk. A good friend of mine, Cenzo Townsend is a very successful Mixer and, like me, he still likes to bring individual instruments up the desk and onto individual channels. I do think you get that perceptible depth of mix which you sometimes lose when its all been squashed up by mixing in the box.
Do you feel the rise in computer based mixing is having a negative effect on the quality of records?
I’d imagine so. In my estimation then, yes. But I think it would be really interesting to ask the mastering engineers who have to master all these things. I’d imagine they’d possibly agree with me…
With that in mind, you have always made the best use of technology, using early samplers and digital multitrack. What has been the most useful innovation in the last 10 years?
I think what’s good is that the actual converters are getting better. There’s no doubt about that. I wouldn’t go near Protools 10 or 15 years ago. I was very much a Radar fan, but Protools is improving. I’ve got the new Avid IO here which I really think is a better sounding unit.
But, the best innovation of the last 10 years…. I’m not sure if there’s really been one! Everyone still loves to use vintage compressors, mic amps and microphones! I think there are better plug-ins coming out definitely, and also the way in which Protools has caught up with the MIDI side of things. For years and years it was way behind Logic, but it has caught up I would say.
But yeah, it’s hard to say. It’s certainly becoming more affordable to buy good quality converters, so I guess that really is one of the good things because before you could spend an absolute fortune on them.
Are plug-ins getting closer to replicating the quality of analogue modules?
Yes I think they are. At first it was a little bit of eye candy, you know, I think people were using their eyes rather than their ears. But now they are beginning to improve, processing plug-ins have definitely got better, and that’s why I’m quite happy now to use Protools. With Protools you don’t have to use it to make everything sound perfect. The thing I like about Protools is that you can just let a band play as live as possible, and then just cut together the best bits quite easily. Whereas in the old days you had your piece of 24inch tape, which was expensive, so you had to try and limit how much tape you used over an album. So you dedicated a piece of tape to one song, and you stripe the code and then record on it, and build it up and so on. But now, it can just be take take take… I still use paper and pencils to make notes because I don’t think you can beat that. And then from your notes cut together the best bits.
Ironically, since I’ve been using it, the editing side of Protools has been so good that I just let people play live as much as they like. Obviously sometimes I do use click track if I need to make it very regular, but for instance when I was making Pete Doherty’s solo record, some of those performances were just cut together from four or five live takes. I put it together to get a good coherent take that I was really happy with. Pete does something different every single time, and you can’t be sure what exactly he’s going to do – that’s part of his charm. But then from those takes, as the producer it’s up to me to then cull those takes into an overall composition for that song. And this is something that Protools really can help you do.
We’d like to ask you a few questions on your glittering career in record production while we have the chance! You played a major role in the success of two of Britain’s most popular bands, The Smiths and Blur, and a host of high profile bands and artists of the last decade too. Is there any album session you look back on with the fondest memories?
I really enjoyed the last Blur album I made, the one which had Beetlebum and Song 2 on it. The one actually called Blur. The band had gone through the whole era of the Blur/Oasis wars, and Parklife being in the album charts for over a year and all that, and I think they were feeling really burnt out. This album sort of rekindled their love of making music together by going back to that slightly lo-fi approach. Having said that it was the first album I used the Radar on. I bought one of the first Radars in this country.
So it was great because there was this sort of re-thinking of approach from them, and I had this great new hard disk recorder which enabled me again to have the editing capabilities I wanted, and it was just a great session. We recorded most of it in London, but then Damon and I went up to Iceland for a couple of weeks recording vocals and keyboards. It’s a session I really have very fond memories of, and I think it was the pinnacle of the music I recorded with them.
The music world recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of The Queen is Dead. You engineered the album while Morrissey and Johnny Marr produced. What do you feel was the magic ingredient in the working relationship you had with them?
Well I think with most bands, when they get to their third album they are pretty sure of what they are about. There are a lot of great third albums made by bands. The map-out, as far as I can see it, is that if a band makes a great debut album, the second album is always a bit like, “quick, lets get another one out, everything’s going really well…”, and that’s why the second album can be such a tricky one. But if a band can get through those albums then they normally realize what their strengths and weaknesses are, and then become quite confident about what and who they are. The one’s I can mention: London Calling by The Clash, or All Mod Cons by The Jam, or Drums and Wires by XTC – these are great third albums.
I think The Queen Is Dead is that for The Smiths. They really were on a roll by then. They hadn’t stopped touring. After Meat Is Murder which was the second album, we were in quite quickly recording tracks for The Queen Is Dead. It wasn’t recorded in one go - a little bit was recorded in the summer, then we had a break while they toured, and then we went back in again in the winter. So, it does hang together really very well and I have a lot of fond memories working with the band on that record.
You famously approached Blur after hearing their first single ‘She’s So High’. Was it a similar scenario with Kaiser Chiefs?
Well no, I didn't approach them it was the other way around! I went to an Ordinary Boys gig, a band I was producing at the time, and the Kaiser Chiefs were supporting them. In fact, I'd missed the Kaisers' set, but after the gig I was talking to Preston, the singer from the Ordinary Boys, and Nick the Kaisers drummer came up to me and shoved this CD into my hand and said, "Hi, we'd like to work with you, could you have a listen to this?" So It was a chance meeting, but I had a listen and it was good.
So then Mark from B-Unique, which is the label the Ordinary Boys were on, said “We’re thinking of signing them, would you go into the studio and do a session?” So I took them into The Bunker, and in fact the first track I did with them was ‘I Predict a Riot’ – we did all of that in the Bunker, recorded and mixed it. And the rest is history…
What do you look for in a band and their sound before deciding on working with them?
I think the main thing I listen out for is the vocal. Obviously the music has to be great, but I think even if the music is fantastic, if you have a really bad vocal on top you’re wasting your time. It has also got to be something I feel musical empathy with, so that I can bring something to the party as it were.
So therefore, I guess with me a lot of the time it tends to be alternative guitar-based stuff, and I suppose that’s where my comfort zone is. Having said that I sometimes enjoy working with bands who are a bit electronic-based, or perhaps a bit ambient. For instance I really enjoyed working on the Durutti Column records I made back in the 90s which were quite 'ambient' in mood. So I like doing that sort of thing as well. I don't want to be stuck in the same mould all the time, it's good to try and push yourself.
This year you resurrected your long-standing working relationship with the Cranberries, tell us a bit about what tempted them back into the studio.
Well, the band had reformed to do some touring after they'd taken a break for a few years while Delores had children and also did some solo records. I think they just felt energized and decided they wanted to make a record again, and asked me if I'd be interested. I was very interested to see what they would come up with after such a long break. At first they were a little hesitant with their writing, but bit by bit they started to find their rhythm and suddenly some really good material came through. I was very keen to get them back to sounding like they did on their first record, which had a very intimate sound. I think touring the world and playing to huge audiences in big stadia had possibly distorted their writing output a bit. And so rather than being this group where Delores was almost singing out to the world, I wanted them to go back to how it was on the first record which was more inwards looking, and intimate. And I think we've achieved that, and I'm really looking forward to that album coming out next year.
You started out your engineering career at the Fallout Shelter which was situated underneath Island Records. Who were the producers and engineers you worked with in the early days who you learnt your trade from?
Well there were two engineers I worked with most of the time there. Firstly there was Paul ‘Groucho’ Smykle, affectionately known as just Groucho. Paul was good at doing all the Dub stuff. He did a lot of the Sly and Robbie dub mixes, he was excellent at that type of thing. So there was a lot of reggae that I worked on at the time. Then there was Godwin Logie, who was the guy who co-produced, engineered and mixed the King Sunny Ade stuff, which was very popular back then. And he did some other RnB acts too.
So they were the two engineers I worked with most at Island. They were very good at letting me get my hands on the desk quickly. Of course, I had been a musician myself before and so I had been on the other side of the glass. I hit the ground running, I knew what to kind of do, such as to not get in the way, and I think I knew when to step in and help the engineer, or to just stay back and let things be. It was good training, plus I was the only assistant there for a while and so it was pretty intensive. I worked on some really great music there at Island.
Of course it was where I got my first lucky break when The Smiths came in one day to do a session. That’s where I met them, and we went on to record ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, which was one of the very first sessions where I was engineering in my own right. After that they took my name and number, and that’s what really led to the long working relationship I had with them.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to any young and aspiring engineer in today’s industry?
Well, firstly, work hard and watch what goes on. Try to keep abreast of everything going on technology-wise. If there’s downtime in the studio and you can practice working on the desk then take that opportunity. Get used to recalling, microphone techniques and recording real instruments. Don’t always just depend on getting things out of the box.
Luck is involved, but they do say you make your own luck. I think with good application, conscientious time-keeping and a good work rate, you will get somewhere.
You are the latest producer to join Miloco’s producer-partnership model. What do you feel Miloco can offer the recording industry that other studios don’t necessarily?
Well I think Miloco are setting a sort of standard, and you’re training people here as well. It reminds me of the old days at places like The Townhouse and Abbey Road, where young people would come in and there’d be a number of different studios they could work and train in. So they got a good, comprehensive umbrella of training over them. That’s priceless I think. I’ve been very impressed with the engineers and assistants I’ve come across here. I like to see that the old fashioned system of training people up correctly and giving them a comprehensive understanding of different studios, is alive and well.
What do you feel could or should be done to improve the modern-day state of the music industry?
Well that’s a long one and I could be here all day! I mean, I was banging on quite a few years ago about how downloading illegally isn’t cool, despite what the journalists at the NME were saying: “Downloading’s great, let’s give it to the man…” Basically, if what we are making has got no value then ultimately studios will close. If a factory makes cars, and then you give those cars away for free, the car factory will come to a grinding halt.
We need protection. We need the government to really protect copyright. There seems to be this distorted image young people have where they are happy to download music for nothing, and then say, “but bands make their money from touring, and I buy my Glastonbury and Reading tickets, so they’re going to make money there…” Ok, bands do make some money from festivals but unless you’re really high up on the schedule you’re not going to be making a fortune. And sadly, the bands who only get to the top of the schedules are the ones who built their careers at a time when records were actually valued, and when music meant something. So where’s the next lot going to come from?
I think we need the government to speak to the internet providers and get them to police the internet more. As soon as one of these pirate sites gets setup, trample it. Get rid of it. That will make it increasingly harder for people to just give away music. It’s not really comparable to back when people would lend friends their records for them to record onto cassette, because then you’d still only have the cassette copy. If you actually wanted the real thing you’d have to go and bloody buy it. But now, even before some records come out, you get people giving away brand new digital copies. Some journalists think it is a really good idea to leak an album online before it even comes out, and that has to stop. Hopefully it will…
Stephen Street was talking to Miloco in September 2011
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