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Stuart Epps: Production Lines

Interview | Music Production
Published April 1995

Producer Stuart Epps began his music business career in 1967 at Dick James Music before going on to work with Gus Dudgeon, Elton John, Jimmy Page, Chris Rea and other top names. He now runs his own commercial studio, situated in the old Mill Studio complex, and is working on a number of projects, including one with Bill Wyman. Here he explains why he prefers 'live' music to almost anything else...

I have always loved live music, and when I'm producing I like the excitement of trying to capture that live emotion on tape. It doesn't have to be a rock band — it could just as easily be an artist with a great voice or a guitar player — but in my opinion, there is nothing better than being in a studio when everyone is getting fired up about the music and capturing that moment on tape for all time.

I suppose that's how I first became interested in recording. When I was eight, I was given a tape recorder and used to go around recording anything and everything. It never ceased to fascinate me that whatever went into the machine could be played back just as I had heard it. It was quite magical.

Magic music, or great music, is often the result of high points and low points in a performance. This same process carries right through to the recording and into the mixing. The magic is in the mistakes, the things that get missed. Unfortunately, with computer mixing nothing is missed, so you listen to an album which is technically perfect and has everything there in its starkest form, but it's boring because there is nothing quirky to listen out for.

I'm not really involved with computerised production techniques as the work I do tends to be more rock orientated and employs real instruments that you actually have to hit, bang or strum. I don't feel such instruments can be improved by using computers. Obviously, I have worked with computer technology — I've even done a few dance projects — but I don't have a fascination for that type of sound. The argument in favour of technology is that it speeds up the recording process, but whenever I've been in a studio and worked in this way I've never found it quicker.

The one thing I would say in favour of computers is that they have opened up the business to a lot of people who can't play an instrument but have great ideas. In those circumstances I don't see using a computer as a cop‑out, because they enable people to express themselves even when they don't have a raw talent.

What I do worry about, though, is that hi‑tech equipment has made it hard for people to make rough demos without feeling insecure. When someone like Elton John or Chris Rea has an idea for a song, they sit down and strum it or sing it, or pick it out on a piano and get it down on tape as quickly as they can. Now it seems people feel inadequate if they don't have thousands of pounds worth of technology to play with. I often speak to songwriters who say they are working on some demos and will probably have them finished in three months. My reaction is: "Three months? What the hell are you doing?" If you've got a song, put it on tape and send it out. If people can't appreciate what you have in its rawest form, then it's probably not worth recording anyway. Some of the most successful records are made in a very short time, but usually by artists who have experience of making records. Good examples of this are Elton John's 'Song For Guy' and 'Nikita', both of which we recorded really fast but were huge hits.

Recently, I was recording a track with Kiki Dee at Real World using a string quartet, but it wasn't going well. So we ended up back in my tiny studio with just a guitarist and took it from there. We got a great guitar sound and then Kiki started singing — it was pure magic. She sang better than I had ever heard her and we had the song down in two takes. Those are the moments I live for in the studio, because they are so wonderful.

It certainly helps when you are working with artists who have masses of experience. I'm currently working with Bill Wyman, Georgie Fame and various other experienced musicians, and they work so fast it's amazing. At the other end of the scale I'm also working with a young, inexperienced band called Straw Dog, who had never been in a studio before. What's great is that they have all this raw talent and I can use my experience to help them be professional. I see that as my producer's role — to bring my experience to the production and make the track work without losing the raw energy.

Most of the work I do these days is in my own studio, which has an old MCI desk. I have definitely found that with a lot of new technology, particularly digital technology, you need to use old mics otherwise there's a brittleness in the sound that doesn't suit the sort of music I like to produce. I suppose it all comes down to personal taste, but I still think that no matter what equipment you use, you can't beat the feeling of capturing something really great and knowing that you have it there for all time and for everyone to enjoy.

Stuart Epps began his music business career in 1967 as an office boy at Dick James Music. There he met Elton John — at the time a humble session player — and started recording demos in DJM's small studio. After stints as A&R man with various record companies, he toured with a number of bands and ended up at The Mill, working firstly with Gus Dudgeon and later Jimmy Page. He now runs his own commercial studio, situated in part of the now defunct Mill Studio complex, and is currently working on a number of projects, including one with Bill Wyman and Georgie Fame.