Since coming to prominence through his work with the KLF, Spike Stent has become one of the most sought-after mixers in the world. Paul Tingen visits him in his new purpose-built London studio to talk about the role of the specialist mixer.
What is bright purple, has a view of a lovely garden, and is stacked with the most impressive pile of gear this side of anywhere? It's the brand new studio of Mark 'Spike' Stent, currently the world's favourite mixer. He's sitting behind his huge SSL console, and in front of two impressive Mac systems with 48 channels of Pro Tools, ready to talk about the tools and secrets of his trade.
The chances are you have several CDs in your collection that have been mixed and/or engineered by Stent. If you just consider his most recent credits, Stent appears to be the coolest mixer on the planet, having mixed acts of the calibre of Massive Attack, Björk and Neneh Cherry. He has also worked recently with respectable names like Madonna, Texas, Mansun, Beth Orton and U2. Rather at odds with this whole 'cool' list is the fact that Stent also mixed all the singles from the first Spice Girls album, including 'Wannabe', and the whole of their second album, Spiceworld.
So welcome to Spikeworld, inhabited by the man who is on his way to defining mixing in the '90s in the same way that legendary American mixer Bob Clearmountain defined mixing in the '80s. Mark Stent's nickname Spike came about during a session with the band The Mission in 1987, when he was engineer for producer John Paul Jones, and the band's singer couldn't remember the name of the spikey-haired youth in front of him. He called him 'Spike' and the name stuck. Eleven years later there's no spiky hair to be seen, and Stent looks like a clean and thoroughly well-adjusted 30-something (he's 33). He chain-smokes during the interview, rolls around a lot in the obligatory studio chair-on-wheels, and is extremely chuffed with his new surroundings. Understandably so, since the huge purple mix room is without doubt one of the most impressive rooms, with the most up-to-date gear and the most powerful computer facilities, that this writer has ever seen.
The purple place is built on the edge of a garden that belongs to Olympic Studios in Barnes, South London. Spike proudly points at the bright sunlight that comes through the windows ("you won't find that in many London studios"), makes a wide gesture at the expanse around him, and explains: "The thing about this room is that it's very different to most other mix studios, because there's an enormous amount of programming gear built in. Few studios come with 48 tracks of Pro Tools as standard. And everything is set up in such a way that when a programmer walks in here, he can interface with our equipment at the flick of a switch. There's no going behind equipment and changing leads and connections here. We also have almost any digital storage medium, from Jaz to Zip to CD-ROM. You can bring anything you want here and it will fit. We have almost everything in-house. And not only do all our synths and samplers come up on the patchbay, they also come up on a 32-channel Mackie desk behind the SSL. A programmer can be working at that desk with headphones on, and work completely separately from the mixing engineer. So it's like having two separate systems in one studio."
This is perhaps as close to the studio of the 21st century as it's possible to get, with its high-level integration of sequencing, sampling, and hard disk and tape-based recording. The two huge 24-inch Mac computer screens give access to Pro Tools and Logic Audio, a separate room next to the main room houses two Studer A820 24-track analogue tape machines, and with a click of his fingers Stent can hire a Sony 3348 digital 48-track from Olympic Studios.
It turns out that the Virgin/EMI-owned studio is his lifeline: "During the past 10 years I've worked, for most of the time, in Olympic Studio 3. I love that studio, but it was time for a change. I needed something to push me in a new direction. I was getting a little bit set in my ways. Studio 3 was also getting too small for me. Since I use computers so much, the room looked like Aladdin's Cave, with gear and wires everywhere. You couldn't move. But a studio at this level needs all the backup it can get. You need maintenance, studio managers, a lot of staff. Before you know it you become a businessman rather than a creative person. So when I finally had an opportunity to actually create my own studio, I decided to make a deal with Olympic. The studio is a joint venture between me and EMI — basically they built the room, and I have equipped it. It was designed by Sam Toyishima, based on Studio 3. Work started just after Easter this year, and finished late October. This is the result."
It's certainly an impressive result, though one wonders whether the purple colour might become an eyesore after a while. But Stent is adamant that it's "homely", and that's what he considers the most important aspect of any studio: "I need to get off on the vibe of a place. I hate studios that feel cold or that just feel like an office. It pisses me off."
Stent's studio certainly doesn't feel cold. The strong presence of natural wood helps to make it feel very warm and comfortable. And after talking more to Stent, it becomes increasingly clear that a marriage of the personal and the technical is at the heart of his approach to music and mixing. Another illustration of this is that his hi-tech studio is partly built to enable him to be around his family more, and to have a proper family life. Foreign trips are therefore increasingly rare, and even the biggest stars will now be expected to make their way to Barnes if they want to hear what's being done with their music.
Mark 'Spike' Stent's own way to Barnes has been pretty straightforward. He grew up in Surrey, not far from the famous residential Jacobs Studios, which he became totally fascinated by as a teenager. So he begged and begged for a job, until he was eventually taken on in 1981, aged 16. He initially paid his dues doing all sorts of manual jobs for the studio, like repairing tennis courts and working on the grounds. (Illustrating once again that studio engineers belong to probably the only highly-qualified profession in our society for which applicants have to run a whole gamut of low-paid, mind-numbing jobs, like making tea, or cleaning the toilets.) Spike stayed at Jacobs for four and a half years, learning engineering from chief engineer Ken Thomas. After this he worked for two years at Trident Studios, and went freelance at the tender age of 22 in 1987.
At Trident the first signs of his later direction were already becoming apparent — he turned out to have an unusual talent for creating the extended remixes for 12-inch singles that were so popular in the mid-'80s. His real breakthrough, however, came in his work with the KLF in the late '80s and early '90s. Stent remembers how it set the trend for a new approach to mixing: "It was in working with Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty that things really started to happen in a new way, using mixing as a work-in-progress, rather than an end stage. We were running everything live in the studio, from sequencers and samplers.
Obviously there was also stuff on tape, but they would come in with their Ataris and Akai samplers, and we would end up rearranging the whole song whilst mixing things. They would then take away what we did, work on it again, and come back a while later, and I'd mix stuff again. My KLF work put me in the picture, and after that the phone never stopped ringing.
"Today I do quite a lot of stuff in a similar way, especially in my work with Massive Attack. But I'll do anything, from very electronic music, like I did with Depeche Mode and Erasure, to acoustic albums, like recently with Beth Orton. I just don't do club mixes anymore. There are plenty of people out there who go to the clubs every night, and know much better than me what goes on. But I do get given quite a lot of singles to mix where others have had two or three goes at mixing and they just couldn't get it right. I will listen to it and say: 'I'll redo the bass, change the keyboards and add a few beats.' And people seem to like that."
Stent's last statement indicates how far the role of mixer has evolved during the last 15-20 years or so. The whole concept of a separate mixer who could salvage or improve a project was pioneered to a large extent by Bob Clearmountain in the early '80s — Clearmountain was also, apparently, the first mixer who managed to negotiate a royalty. His approach to mixing was and is rather different to that of the remixer who re-works existing material for release on different formats, aimed at different venues, like the club mixes Stent mentioned. Clearmountain takes material recorded by artists, engineers and producers, and mixes a definitive version for the definitive format, ie. compact disc. What was novel was the degree to which he added his own touch to the material. In this sense he became a kind of musical post-producer and/or editor, sculpting the music to his own vision. Though Stent also practices the KLF approach, treating mixing as part of an ongoing creative process, the mainstay of his work is firmly in the tradition of Clearmountain; he is expected to add the secret ingredient that will make everything come together, and most of all, will make the record a hit.
But, asserts Stent, that's not the same as producing a record: "I don't look at it like that. When the material comes to me, the hard work has been done, which is getting the performances. After that I just do my thing. It's easy. I just get given the tapes and I'll get on with it. And I don't have to deal with all the political and personal problems that come with making a record. Of course, I'll talk to the artist, and the producer and the A&R people beforehand. If there's a demo, I'll always listen to it, to get an idea of the original intention. And then I'll bring a fresh vision to the material, and a clear approach. That is why they come to me. Some people have spent months on an album, and they often lose the initial vibe and any capacity to be objective. So most people say to me: 'do what you want to do'. And nine times out of 10 that works. In some cases that involves quite a bit of restructuring of the songs, bringing out the hooks, or adding extra beats or synthesizer sounds. In other cases it's just a matter of getting the balance right. When they asked me to mix the Spice Girls' 'Wannabe', others had already mixed it about five times. The problem was that the vocal balance hadn't been quite sussed. It's a very quirky pop record, and there's not a lot going on with it, and my work was all about getting the vocals to sound right. It was quite tough to do, even though it only took six hours."
So Stent's approach to mixing is not a form of production! Well, he could have fooled me, and also the people who pay him royalties. However, what is clear is that the scope of freedom that he has will vary according to the projects he does. Mixing as part of an ongoing creative process, as practised by KLF and Massive Attack, is obviously where he has most input. At the other end of the scale are traditional pop records, like those of the Spice Girls, where he has to come up with a radio-friendly format, leaving less room for experimentation. And somewhere between these extremes are cases like the latest Björk album, Homogenic, where Stent's work is the final stage in the making of the album, but where he has ample scope for improvisation. He explains how he draws all these different strands together: "I may mix three different types of music in a week. I get off on that. I don't like to be pigeonholed. I think that if I did one genre of music only, I'd be bored shitless. I love pop records, and I love mad experimental records. It's with the latter stuff, like with Massive and Björk, where I can get out all my gadgets and effects boxes and go crazy. Tracks can become like an engineer's playground. Like the track 'Pluto' on Homogenic, I just distorted the f**k out of everything."
Well, yes, Stent didn't pull any punches on the distortion on that track. Everything, including the vocals, is so heavily distorted that it now invariably falls victim to the 'skip track' button on this writer's CD player. Stent's influence on the track is, to say the least, upfront. This raises all sorts of issues. How much artistic freedom does a mixer actually have? Does the remixer have a duty to preserve the artist's original intentions? And how does Stent deal with tracks he doesn't like?
Stent responds: "I will only take on projects that I like. I am very honest about that. You have to be, because I can't do things that I don't enjoy. It would sound like it. Of course when I do a whole album there will sometimes be certain tracks that I'm not so fond of. If the vibe of the rest is good, I just get on with it. But I love that track 'Pluto'. That track was mixed in two hours. I got it sounding really good and powerful, and I was playing around with this compressor trying to see what it would sound like with the vocals distorted. Björk walked in, and I asked her whether she was ready for this, because I wasn't sure she would like it. But when I put it on, she just danced around the control room. She loved it.
"It is always really rewarding for me when an artist gets off on something you're doing. An artist usually has spent a long time working on an album, and they may not quite have what they want, and they may not quite know why. And then you spend a few hours and you get it, and they have this amazing reaction. I get off on that. I love it when people get into it. What I also enjoyed with that Björk album was that there were no definite arrangements on most of the songs. I'm talking about the way the beats came in and out, where certain hooks were, and so on. A lot of that was created during the mix. They brought the material in on analogue tape and DA98, and a few things that were run live. We moved many things around in Pro Tools. I would start at 10 in the morning, and by four in the afternoon Björk would come in and give me feedback. I had a lot of freedom. I did drop-ins and cuts and rearranged things, and could go wild with my effects. Just like with the Massive Attack albums, Protection  and Mezzanine  — I got to use many guitar effects pedals. I used them on the breaks, vocals, keyboards, all sorts of things. Björk and her producer Mark Bell had already manipulated the sounds a lot, and then I manipulated them again.
"By contrast, when I was working with Massive Attack we had everything running live. They came in with stuff on Pro Tools and sequences in Cubase Audio, and there was an Akai MPC3000 as well. I worked on Mezzanine over six months, with long breaks in between. What happened was that we mixed one track, and they would take that home and that would then suddenly become the intro for another track, and over a period of time the whole album would come together like that. We may have mixed 20 tracks, and some would become parts of other tracks. We were changing arrangements all the time, so they were songwriting at the same time as mixing. Obviously you don't want to put anything down to tape during a process like that, there would be no point. It works best for Massive when everything is relative, and we can change anything at any time. With analogue technology that would be impossible, so hard disk technology suits them really well.
"U2 also change things constantly, and yet they like to work on analogue tape, which means the edits are harder to do. I recorded their album Pop for them, which was an unusual project for me, because I was in Ireland for the best part of a year. I'd come home every weekend to be with my family and to do occasional mixes at Olympic 3. 'Wannabe' was mixed during one of these weekend breaks, and I also did some work recording Madonna's vocals for Evita during that time. I agreed to do Pop because I'm a friend and admirer of producer Flood, and because I had worked with U2 before, together with Nellee Hooper, on Goldeneye and the 'Kiss Me Kill Me' track for one of the Batman movies. They're brilliant people who treat me well."
What comes across again in this discussion is how closely the personal and technical are interwoven in Spike world. Mark Stent continuously switches between the two, as if there's little difference for him. When you ask him how he does things technically, he usually give answers like "I do things like I feel them" or "it's just the way I feel it" or "I am very much a feel person." Although he quickly adds, "I don't mean that in a hippie sense", it's initially hard to get specific details out of him.
It turns out that the way to get him to talk technical is to ask him about his brand-new studio, of which he's as proud as a father of his first new-born child. To start with, all the attention is focused on the imposing SSL desk, and it turns out that this plays a crucial part in achieving whatever Spike Sound there is: "It's the desk that was formerly in Studio 3 in Olympic. I love and adore this desk, which is why I bought it from them. It's about 10 years old. I had it refurbished when it got transferred to my studio. It's an SSL G-series with 56 mono channels and eight stereo channels. I am very superstitious, and I think this desk has a sound. Technical people always tell me that I'm mad and that it's the same as any other SSL G-series, but one day a maintenance engineer found something in it of which he said: 'well yes, that would make a difference.' What? No, I'm not telling you what it is!" (he laughs).
It's often claimed that older SSLs are ergonomically great, but sonically inferior. Many engineers, therefore, prefer to record on Neve desks, while choosing to mix on a new SSL because of the automation. But Stent has no problems whatsoever with the sound of his desk: "It's how you use it, like with anything. That's my whole theory of equipment. Yes, I do have a whole collection of Neve mic preamps and EQs, and also Massenburg and Focusrite stuff, valve compressors and limiters and so on. But that's not to compensate for the sound of the desk, it's just because I like that gear. People complain about the EQ and compressors of the older SSL boards, and always do their best to bypass them. They may have a bad name, but I use them a lot. In the past other engineers would look at the buttons on my desk, and tell me that I was over-EQing things, but I don't look at the settings. I do things as I feel them. It really is purely how you use things. The SSL gives me grit in my mixes. You'll see red lights flashing everywhere when I'm overloading the EQ and things like that. The distortion and grit comes from the SSL compression and the clipping on the individual channels.
"I will also put the SSL Quad compressor across the stereo output buss of the mix. Basically what I do with every mix is put a GML EQ across the stereo buss of the SSL, and just lift the top end, above 10K, so I won't have to use as much high end from the SSL. The mid and high end of the SSL is a little harsh and cold. So I turn that down a bit, and then lift the high end with the Massenburg to make the mix sound warmer and add sheen. And I really get that SSL Quad compressor pumping. I'm not shy with it. I always set it the same way, 2:1, and off we go. I've tried the newer SSL consoles, but they sound too clean for me. Also, I don't like the J-series automation so much. I like the J-series for recording, but not for mixing. But I've never been scared of using any desk. I've used Neve desks, and my favourite Neve is a very old desk that's owned by U2."
Staying on the subject of the desk for a moment, I pass on a question from Marius de Vries, programmer and friend of Stent, who was interviewed in SOS September 1998. Apparently all the faders are always at pretty much the same level when Stent mixes. Why?
He laughs loudly: "Basically, I hate having faders all over the place. During my initial passes of the material through the SSL, I will be pushing all the faders up and down and try to come to some basic balance settings. You'll see me make pencil marks everywhere as I'm pushing things around to get a little bit of a vibe going. After that I'll basically go back to the top of the track, and I'll null all the faders on the board. It's just a habit of nulling all the desk's faders to the zero position. [in other words, the SSL design allows Stent to create a starting point for his mix by moving the faders, then 'null' each fader so that its 0dB position represents this initial setting, so that he can begin the mixing process proper with all the faders at their 0dB position.] I will do this for different sections of the song, like the verse or the chorus. So when all the faders are aligned in all sections of the song, it's easier for me to see where I'm going and what changes I'm making. It's helps me to get the right balance. If there's anything that I'm good at, it's balancing. Creating a balance so that you can hear everything. I like to get things to sound in such a way that you can pick a sound and feel like you can grab it out of the speakers."
These last lines certainly sum up one of the things that characterise all of Stent's mixes: there's an unusual clarity, and space for everything. Even where things sound dirty or distorted, it's easy to hear what's going on and get a sense of the overall arrangement. The usual way in which this is achieved is by EQing and layering all the sounds in the frequency spectrum. Stent has a few different methods. One is by creating sonic differentiation using an unbelievably extensive collection of guitar effects boxes, ranging from rackmounted guitar effects like Sansamp, Marshall, and Zooms, to his pile of 60-odd analogue and antique guitar pedals: "When I mix I send loops, vocals, keyboards and other things to these pedals. I'll loop all kinds of effects, go out of different boxes, stick things in side-chains, and get weird sounds out of everything. This is one of the big things that I do. And it's all a matter of trial and error. Conversely, we create weird sounds by sticking loops and guitar sounds through all sorts of synths that we have here, like the JP8080, the Korg MS20 or the Nord Modular. Of course I also use more traditional effects, like the Massenburg or the LA2A. I love using the Eventide H3000 and DSP4000, and the TC Electronic Fireworx is also a favourite."
On the reverb front, Stent confesses to using the standard Lexicon 480 and 224 reverbs, as well as the AMS delay, and "on certain projects" his Copycat and Space Echo. But he adds that much of what people think is reverb in his mixes is in fact delay. He elaborates about one of his core working methods: "All the Spice Girl vocals were mainly done with delays. If you listen to the Massive Attack you will also hear many crusty old delays. I always EQ the effect sends to the delay line, so that the sound coming back is not the same as the original. If the delay sounds the same as the original, the track will get very messy. Most of my effects are automated on the desk — I use many different EQ and delay settings in many different parts of the song. The effects in the chorus may be entirely different from the effects in the verse. So when you have one vocal that goes all the way through a track, it may be multitracked three or four times to different EQs and different effects. If I want a vocal to punch through in a certain section of the song, then I'll maybe add mid-range EQ, or I'll add a lot of compression. But you will normally find that the verse and chorus vocal sounds are entirely different. There may be a basic delay for the chorus, with vocal spins coming from another repeat delay. In the verse there may be a stereo echo, with a shorter delay, probably on the 8th or 16th note, and maybe another at 3/16ths behind the vocal. Of course it's a subliminal thing. It's a feel thing. Different sections of the track should sound and feel different. You want them to either lift you, or bring you back to another section. But you don't want these shifts to be too obvious."
As is to be expected, Stent also has a wide range of effects available to him in his gargantuan Pro Tools system. He remarks: "I use the Pro Tools plug-ins a lot. You will find that there are a lot of filter-sweep EQs going on in my mixes. There are certain synth plug-ins that we stick a lot of guitars through. Line 6's Amp Farm is fantastic, and there are many DUY plug-ins that I really like. Antares' Auto-Tune is a great little plug-in as well, that has replaced the DSP4000 as my favourite medium for vocal tuning. For me as an engineer, I don't enjoy doing things on Pro Tools using a keyboard and a mouse, it's really vibeless. So we have Pro Control, which is amazing. Everything on it is automated, and I can do effects on it, EQ channels individually, do submixes of Pro Tools material, and send that to the SSL. We have six 888 systems, and 48 tracks, and I think that the current 24-bit Pro Tools system is fantastic. In the old days of digital editing, you could really destroy the feel of the song, but today it works much better. But you still have to make sure that your hardware is all locked and clocking correctly, because it changes the feel and the sound if it isn't."
We've been talking for nearly two hours now, and Stent has to get on with his mixing job for the new Texas album ("a very strong album, with six singles on it. It's going to be very big"). So we have a brief glance at his monitors, NS10, KRK 9000B and prototype Genelecs with 18-inch bass drivers, before returning to the omnipresent Pro Tools system. I ask him how he thinks the sonic quality of digital compares to that of analogue. His answer is another variation on the themes of 'feel' and 'it's what you do with it': "I will always master to half-inch tape. I just like the feel of it. It warms the sound and pushes the bass forward, and I like that. We also master to timecode DAT, 24-bit DAT, and I take a bit-split down to a DA98 via an Apogee AD8000. So the mastering engineer has a choice of what he thinks sounds best. But I wish people would accept that digital and analogue are simply not the same. I used to like digital, but now I love that analogue sound. With digital you always have to use shitloads of compression just to warm up and compress the sound. With analogue tape your sound comes back distorted. If you pump up a half-inch tape it's going to suck a bit, and I like that effect. But then there are so many variables with analogue — change the headblock and you get a completely different sound. There is a whole old school of engineers out there who know how to make analogue tape work for them, and that knowledge is sadly getting lost at the moment. I think that the art of recording in general is getting lost with everybody learning their techniques on home studios instead of commercial studios." Anyone interested in doing toilet-cleaning, grass-cutting and tennis-court maintenance at one of the UK's remaining big studios?