Steve Brown - Producer
Not a household name perhaps, but this man is behind quite a lot of musical projects that you will no doubt recognise - as Janet Angus explains.
Steve Brown is one of those names you are not sure whether you have heard of or not. This is mainly attributable to the fact that for many years he has steered a course directly away from the limelight, preferring to stay in the background. Having decided to come out in the open, his first venture into the dreaded world of the press was talking to HSR about his work with ABC and Wham, his current work with two new acts, and all the others in between.
The fact that he is working with 'Rock 'n' Roll' bands now is the result of a long uphill struggle with the record companies who, having heard his chart breaking production with the earlier acts, were determined not to let him get his hands on any musician of a different ilk. Steve, however, was determined not to be put down.
'I do believe I'm capable of doing anything from white funk through to heavy rock.' This he set out to prove.
Steve Brown came into the business of producing through a series of rather improbable circumstances. His school friend Steve Lillywhite and he made their first steps into the music world together. Lillywhite played bass guitar and they got together a band called Archangel. Brown's business head meant that he was pretty good at extorting £30 a night from various colleges and universities around, and this was all pretty good until the pair were expelled because of their idleness. They did not, however lose touch and, certainly on Brown's part, Lillywhite has been a constant source of inspiration and competition as their two careers took off on the same lines, albeit staggered chronologically.
Brown was working at a local Petrol station that summer when Elton John drove in. 'Being the shy retiring type I asked him if he wanted any help with his career!'
Amazingly enough he was told to ring Elton's manager John Reid and was given a job as drum roadie on the 1972 English Tour. Having to opt out of the subsequent American tour because he was too young to be given visas to work in some states, he remained behind and ran into producer Gus Dudgeon at a David Bowie gig. He was about to go into the studio to mix 'Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player' and invited Steve to go down.
At this time Steve was planning to become a pilot, but walking into that studio rather changed his ambitions. 'I rang Trident Studios the next day but was turned down straightaway because I was too young. Steve Lillywhite however, was already working as a tape op at Phonogram so I went and met his boss and started doing it too. 'It's a very tightly run, very BBC-like place, with everyone wearing hush puppies and having to be there at 9.30, and the orchestras having breaks for tea and things.'
As Lillywhite moved into engineering, Brown tape operated for him on projects with people like Roy Wood, The Move and Wizard, until finally he moved into the engineering seat himself on an album with Roy Wood. 'Roy taught me a lot about sound and arranging; he was very kind because, really, I knew nothing at this stage. During the day I was working on lots of good but straight projects like Val Doonican and Peters and Lee with the whole orchestra bit. It was very good training; you had to rely on mic technique etc. So this good hard engineering practice which I had during the day, I would then take into the recording with Roy in the evening.' Steve was now engineering many varied projects, but still not the kind of music he really wanted to do.
'Then Punk and New Wave hit the world and I was fortunate enough to get a non-Punk band working with Mutt Lange: the Boomtown Rats.' They did two albums: The Boomtown Rats and Tonic For The Troops with all the associated singles, Steve being allowed to co-produce on the B-sides. 'By this time I had just turned 22 - well... That's not bad, huh?'
This accomplished and combined with the fact that he was now chief recording engineer of Phonogram London, he set off for Australia and the USA where he worked on 13 albums in two years including Steve Forbert and Rachel Sweet. 'I was lucky because I got the work without any problems - my sound had become known I suppose, although I still didn't know what it was at that stage.'
On a visit back to the homeland, he met up with Lillywhite who, explaining that his engineer had fallen through, invited him to join him on an album with Joan Armatrading: Walking Under Ladders. Swallowing his pride, ('well he came up with the right price' he grinned), he consented. 'Joan is brilliant' he enthused, and the project was profitable in many ways, not least because the Steves worked very well together.
Meanwhile: 'Owen Davis, who had tape opped for me since Boomtown Rats, had demoed a band which Phonogram had picked up on. I heard them and they were amazing; it was black music but by white people - very interesting. They turned out to be ABC. I had always liked dance music anyway but had had to keep it a secret because it was considered a very namby pamby sort of thing to be into! I went to see ABC, and there was really only one thing on which I could build a case for them working with me: that I had lots of experience and a good sound. I remixed 'Time by Light of the World', and I played this to them. ABC sounded great and they got a number 12 hit straight away. I thought at this stage that making records was going to be a doddle.'
It was not so simple though. Steve then adopted the philosophy that he would work on anything he liked, no matter what it was. Whilst deeply involved in a MOR album with Randy Edelman he was approached by Wham with their demos. 'I bit my lip as I did it, but I passed them on because I didn't have enough time and I didn't want to ruin their career by not having enough time to do the job properly.'
'I heard the production of 'Wham Rap' and it was brilliant, I couldn't fault it. George, for some reason, still wanted to do a single with me so we sat down in his kitchen one day and started to arrange 'Young Guns'. By the next day the whole production was done. Over the following five days we recorded it and it went to number 2. Then we had a number 3, number 4 and number 5. Then the album went to number 1. Steve Lillywhite had put in a number 1 album with U2 and I thought 'OK you rat, I'll get you!' There is nothing like a bit of competition to drive a man on!'
After this, Steve started looking for new bands and artists, refusing to work with anyone established, searching for a replacement for George. 'It was then that I learnt to respect musicians and never to underestimate people. I had my own rhythm section - very talented guys - and we took all these good looking 17-year-old singers and put high energy disco tracks behind them until, eventually, I collapsed under pressure. I just couldn't get the same thing again.' So everything came to a halt while Steve reassessed his position. Not working with a band as such, just forming everything around a singer, involved a great deal of administration and organisation of which Steve himself was doing the bulk. It was not possible just to have an idea and put it on tape - the whole thing had to be organised. He was spending all morning on the phone, going into the studio for about 14 hours, sleeping for 3 hours and then starting again: until, finally it proved too much.
'I wanted to get back to real bands and Rock 'n' Roll with the close family atmosphere that goes with belonging to a band.' But life is not that simple. Having learnt that he had to love the band and record songs he was really into he rang round the record companies. 'I would hear a band, fall in love with the songs, talk to the record company and they would say 'Oh yes, you did Wham and ABC didn't you? Great, but this isn't that sort of band, and it isn't for you.' It took one year to wipe that white funk image off the record.'
So how did the actual break come about? The bands he is working with currently are The Promise and The Cult. With The Promise he went to see them and offered to demo any song they wanted, all they had to do was tell him the sort of sound they were after. 'The answer that came back was more or less 'bigger, better and bolder than anything we have heard before.' So that worked straight away because that was my sound. But it took nearly 18 months to get a band into the studio that trusted me.'
The Cult came by way of a video which Steve's manager gave him. 'I sat at home and watched the video of the first three songs and they were fantastic. I walked to the phone to call my manager and it was ringing with my manager on the end of it. He said, 'That video', and I said 'Yes, it's great isn't it?' and he said 'I'm sorry it was the wrong Steve.' It had been sent to Steve Lillywhite who shared the same manager.
'I was deeply disappointed although I never said anything to him about it. Two weeks later I had the demos sent to me saying that they had heard I was interested in the band and they would like me to go for the running.'
'I decided I had to do something spectacular to make them all sit up; it was not good enough to just go along to the interview and talk to them. So I listened to the demo and the video and they were quite different - there was no particular coherence. The songs would consist of seven chords and last about 7½ minutes - brilliant in places, but it was tending to become a bit album-like. So I applied the singles formula and edited their cassette demo of 'She Sells Sanctuary.' I took the tape along to the interview and now it was a complete rearrangement - put into more refined orders, and fortunately I had picked the song they wanted as their single anyway. That single charted this week.'
The struggle over, and his point proven, Steve happily chatted away for hours about his sounds and methods of working. 'My drum sound is easily described: I don't like anything too close; I like it to sit back from the monitors. I go for a big stage sound where the lead vocalist would look around 1" high, with the PA turned up full blast; depth of sound. If somebody wants the vocal closer I can still achieve the sound and make it big. I like to produce sounds that you want to turn up. I tend to use a lot of reverb for depth. EQ-wise - losing the nasty knocking lower mid-range, giving a smooth bottom end. I don't like adding EQ - I like to take it away. I'll take a long time getting a good sound and I like to mic flat.
'I'm also a digital maniac now.' The interview took place at Jacob's Studios in Surrey where the facilities are a 3M 32-track digital multitrack with Solid State Logic desk' - another of Steve's favourites. It was the first time he had worked with digital, and was by way of an experiment - analogue Otari being available should the digital prove unsuitable.
'For a start I love having the extra eight tracks; you don't get any deterioration of the signal - with analogue, toppy instruments like cymbals tend to die away after they've gone over the machine's heads a few times as you add things, so as you go on you are trying to match an already deteriorating sound. With digital you can bounce without any loss of quality. With the high sampling rate, you get good quality professional audio - you are recording what the microphone hears; you can even hear the SSL, although we keep this quiet with mild gating and so forth. You can get a very metally effect with some digital machines which I thought I was going to get before I came here, but 3M are one of the few companies who have got digital right. You can have endless high frequency on tape smoothly, without it getting out of hand, and it stays there. If you do want to lift it you don't drag a load of noise with it as you would on analogue. There is no wow and flutter, no drift and there are no phase problems. Basically, I'm 100% converted. You can stick everything on tape and sort it round later. Digital gives you the optimum amount of frequency on tape. You can run the thing across the heads for a year and you will still have the same thing.'
Jacobs Studios' owner Andy Fernbach, although very happy with the digital direction they've chosen and all set to install the new Mitsubishi system, did concede that although digital has worked very well for them, it's not necessarily everybody's cup of tea. 'Some people like the colouration of analogue. They must use the tape to get the sound then. I've never done that,' rejoined Steve. 'I don't think I've reached my peak and my standard yet, so I think I might be a digital child.'
With Wham's drum sound we tried not to be particularly deep and glorious. On one track we used a Simmons snare drum pad which was driving a speaker at very high volume which I placed in the vicinity of the real snare drum. This, miked up, gave a weird sound because the Simmons was coming through and as it died away you got the ring of the snare in the drum. All these things take hours of experimenting and quite often it just sounds terrible! But spending time pursuing them is good. For the rest of the drum sound I just try to empty out the mucky mids and get a good clean sound. You tend to get a squawky high mid-range raunch which a lot of engineers don't like but you get low level loudness which comes over well on the radio/small car speakers and it also tends to transfer well to hi-fi. The only place it sounds terrible is on control room monitors going flat out! I go by gut feeling and leave things there. The recording should really shout at you. It does work, but you have to be careful on slower songs because then it can just sound like a bad recording. Something else I like to do is triggering a noise gate with the bass drum so say the bass guitar will be activated with the bass drum - it gives a tight bottom end. If there is anything missing on the centre frequency then I will introduce hand claps to fill it out. If I could make the yellow mid-range lights on the UREIs glow I was happy. All the bass drum, snare drum and bass guitar were played to a click track and it was quite stark, but loud.
'George's vocal sound: he had an awful lot of effects in the cans - we had to be careful because the effects had to be balanced in the headphones very precisely and if they were out of balance it affected his tuning. We recorded with the effects on straight to tape, which I liked him for. He had a great mic voice; it was a lovely sound.'
'I also gated the bass guitar, attenuating it 5 or 6dBs down with the gate open and then pushing it up to level with the noise gate closed, so the bass sat in the track quite comfortably - triggering the noise gate with the bass drum.'
'Generally now I always record drums without the cymbals. If the room is big I use up to 20 mics — usually snare, bass and tom close miked and overheads ranging from two feet away and back the full length of the room. This allows me to mix those ambient mics for a cracky sound - it's got to have a lot of depth. But I am very aware of phase differences. I don't use cymbals because you get ringing in the room. For instance when the drummer hits the snare the cymbal rings and it's not a good effect. Most of my drummers feel very silly hitting thin air, and then they get sore legs when they do the cymbal overdubs! You end up with a good result though. If I don't end up with a good result I'll go back to the traditional method. Personally I don't sacrifice performance for sound.'
'The Promise are basically raunchy rock with loud guitars and they happen to have a very adequate synth player who's a bit of a boffin. You have to be careful how you introduce the synth sounds - gloss them in so that it sounds like a very clever sound effect. Selection of synthesiser sounds takes time and patience. If I'm using synths I tend to use the same set up as for guitar, ie. DI and Marshall 100W stack with ambient mics to achieve that punchy stage sound. I use Lexicon D224X digital reverb for synths - mainly delay and chorus effects - it gives nice lush sounds to the DI side.'
For guitars Steve uses Shure SM7s and a Trace Elliot speaker system driven from either a Marshall amp or Mesa Boogie in the control room along with the guitarist who, he feels, normally suffers through bad foldback because they are making so much noise themselves they can't hear the monitoring.
'That's what I use if the guitarist doesn't have a particular sound of his own; good speakers and SM7, EQ the front panel of the amp until the SM7 is acting nicely — it's a great method and works on any guitar. You just get it right for flat mic. You might go into the studio and listen and it might sound terrible in there, but it doesn't matter. You get a lot of depth. If it's a choppy guitar I'll use a shorter echo; if it's long and lush then I'll use a long echo. I use triple compression across the echo returns and it is triggered by whatever instrument is going through, so when they stop playing the echo returns get louder which is quite a nice effect.'
On the subject of microphones Steve has his definite favourites, although a certain amount of experimenting is always done to make sure it is the right choice. For drums he usually uses a Neumann U47 valve for bass, depending on the drum itself. The choice would be between AKG D20, 421 or RE20. Snare drum get an AKG 414, Shure SM58 or 86. For toms, a Sennheiser 421 or RE20, and cymbals are recorded with U87s with an SM58 on hi-hat. Ambient mics are usually Neumann U87, 47 and Crown PZMs.
'If we're doing the cymbal parts separately, I'll use an AMS stereo time processor with no delay using harmoniser on A channel reading 1005 and on B channel 0.995 (1000 is normal pitch). If you send the left hand cymbal track to the B side of the AMS which returns on the right hand side, and send the right hand cymbal track to the A side of the AMS which returns on the left hand side, this gives a nice zingy spread to the cymbals without being too splashy.'
'I like to use as many effects as possible, depending on the band. Guitar-wise I like good pedals - they're a bit raunchier than nice clean studio effects. If it's an acoustic guitar, I'll use Dimension D or some type of harmoniser effect such as the one I use on the cymbals to give it that zingy spread. I like using subtle effects - nothing radical. If you overdo it, it affects the original definition of the sound. Synth I like with delay or echo; it wouldn't sound punchy if it were dry. It's a thinking man's game; you have to listen to every part.'
Vocal mics: 'My favourite is the Neumann U47 valve mic. I will put some in front of the singer; an AKG 414, Shure SM7, Neumann U87 and U47 and any other juicy mics the studio might have lying around in the mic cupboard. Stand the singer about 18 inches back so that he thinks he is on a presidential campaign, and find out which sounds best. I have even used, by way of a mistake, a combination, but beware of phase differences. Generally the U47 sounds best, but I must stress usually, because it's not always good for everyone. Generally it works for a good all round singer, but I've even used a Shure SM58 on vocals before now.'
Effects-wise, Steve will always have two sets of Fairchild and two sets of LA2A compressors on board.
'I used to spend hours over EQ. It's good, for example, on guitars. If the guitarist says he likes that kind of squawky noise you hear, and you can hear it much easier with the EQ out, but of course you can't do that, so I send some of the EQ I have and group another fader using very narrow Q and boost, as much as the EQ will handle and then fade into the original EQ and it works much better, but I don't know why. You get what you want, rather than bringing a load of waffle up with it on the fader.'
As for studios themselves, 'I hate dead rooms; the best rooms to work in are small live rooms - very lively and crisp. Townhouse 2 drum room is a prime example, and Jacob's drum room is proving to be, if anything, a little better. The criteria on which I'll pick a studio are firstly the recording room, then a Solid State logic console. It's a very very flexible and good sounding desk and you can do practically anything with them. They have a nice amount of sends; stereo cue, four mono, 32 group out, nice and easy to sub-group and you can sub-group the sub-groups. I like the EQ. Obviously the Total Recall is very important; the 4000E series has saved my life on many occasions. For instance when the bass guitarist suddenly wants to put this brilliant update line in for the chorus and he wants you to match the sound.'
'For mixing, I like the computer, because I like to go for a feel mix, which I tend to do myself. I get the sounds, run the track pushing this and pulling that, listening on the small monitors and then I turn it up full blast and go for a take. I call it my feel pass. Then I listen quietly for lacking definition and trim it up on the computer. I don't do mass edits and vast moves with the computer. I would like to see the Neve Necam moving fader panel on the SSL desk. Moving faders are more idiot orientated; you tend to trust it more when you can see the faders moving.'
'Monitoring isn't really a criteria as I will change them or hire in Quested or UREIs. I've just fallen in love with Quested and we're on our honeymoon at the moment. So far it's alright. They're very clean and they boast of being focussed. I tend not to get into how they work and all I can say is they sound bloody marvellous - very, very clean and balanced at low level and therefore they're not fatiguing.'
'As for small monitors, I used to be a Yamaha NS10M man, putting the tissue over the speakers and everything, but Hugh Padgham turned me on to Audio Research AR18s which I now use, driven by Crown amps for mixing. I'll check the final balance before the actual take, listening in mono at very low level on one Auratone. I call it the housewife radio level, and I listen for arranging in the backing track and clarity in the vocals. I have often thought of having a hoover going in the background.' No comment!
Playing to a click track is not simply for the aesthetics of time keeping. 'I use an SRC code on tape which I bring back off tape and use to drive a DMX drumbox. If it isn't dynamic enough then I'll add a bubbly synth or percussion program from the DMX to one of my own drum sounds.
'This coding helps with the digital because, for example, if you wanted to put an extended guitar section in the middle of a chorus, what I can do now is to get a good first chorus which will take anything up to one day to achieve and then code over to the 4-track digital stereo mix of the overdub. Using the 3M shuffle, you can spin in on the other choruses and this obviously saves a lot of time. I'll tend to shuffle the odd ms to get a new feel in the various choruses which is important. Another way to get away from the spinning-in being audible is to introduce another guitar with the same feel, but probably not as long and put this in on top. This tends to fool people into thinking we've used a clever special effect. If the band aren't tight, the click track spin-ins aren't going to work very well. Basically I go for feel.'
Before going into the studio with a band Steve will do a lot of preparatory work with them. He has found that the best way to work is to get to know each other and become mutually respecting friends. 'Once the trust is there, which is very important, it's nice for the band to come up with their new songs after rehearsing them for a few days. Then I'll come into the rehearsal and listen to them and comment immediately. I don't barge in straight away and say everything is wrong for the sake of it. I respect everyone I work with and I hope they in turn respect my judgement.'
'This is why I like to use good rehearsal rooms such as Nomis. I comment on the arrangements at this stage: the intro might work very nicely as a bridge after the chorus, but maybe the chorus works best as an intro, and you can tell immediately whether it should be a fade or an ending; things like that, whether the parts fit the sounds. I can be objective because I am coming in with fresh ears whereas the band are already getting a bit stale if you like. With the new parts the band put together, bearing my comments in mind, the songs get a new lease of life and become more interesting to play. So they practice for a couple of hours until they all know their parts and then the songs aren't played again until we're in the studio. This way we retain a certain freshness.
'In the studio, it's down to the producer to soak up any problems the artists may have and that is why you must know them as friends and get on with them. Then if they do have problems, you can help them and obtain the best results that way. That's why I don't understand bands who use a producer just because he is a name and they don't know him; they only meet him the day before they go into the studio and they are working on recording things which are a very important part of their lives. More often than not that producer probably has another rhythm section waiting outside because he doesn't know exactly what the band are capable of. It's bad for the producer and it is bad for the band. From a producers point of view you can easily get swept up into the 'flavour of the month syndrome'; there's a buzz about a band and you go into the studio without knowing them or their music, and it comes out with very negative results.'
Coming from an engineering background, Steve tends to want to get in on some of the knob twiddling himself. Although he does always use an engineer to look after levels to tape, patching of effects and balance of effects, he likes to do the EQ himself and all his own mixes.
'I sympathise with the vocalist when he can't sing because he doesn't feel like it. Sometimes it is the same for me when I am mixing. I like to be on top of the world to do my very best, but if you're tired or something is bothering you, it is not fair to mix when you are feeling like that. In that case I would call it off or have one of my very trusted engineers balance it up for me and I will come in and trim it. But it is very rare that that happens because I am quite a happy little soul really!'
Which only leaves the studio staff.
'If you're living in then the staff as a whole are important. You have got to be made to feel part of the family.'
Cutting too is always a difficult area - choosing the right cutting rooms for the right reasons. Steve has frequented the Master Room and Townhouse cutting room although he feels that the best cuts he has had were in the USA.
'I like my sounds bigger and better than everyone elses, and I like the cutting engineer to appreciate that and be adventurous. In America they are so I am thinking of taking my cutting over there.'
Wouldn 't you have trouble persuading the record company to pay for that?
'Well I handle the budget anyway. It's better to squabble with the record company for a bigger budget and give them some change at the end of the day than being Mr Nice Guy and saying yeah, sure I'll do it for £15,000 and end up spending three times as much. I don't waste time and I don't waste money. We work a 14 or 15 hour day with no breaks for the engineer or producer. The band obviously have breaks when they're not doing their overdubs and then I expect them to be writing or involved in some way, but they do seem to manage to slip in the odd game of tennis somehow! We have weekends off. Last thing on Friday, I do a good rough mix of everything we have done that week. I take them home and listen over the weekend, so we don't waste hours in the studio thinking about what is lacking. Even though our pre-production is very thorough in the rehearsal rooms, these occasions tend to occur. Structure-wise it's always there; but in the rehearsal room it all sounds loud and lovely and something will go past you that needs something doing to it.
'A lot comes to light listening; I listen just as I'm waking up and dozing and can come up with some incredible ideas. There's no pressure then and things like the right instrument or pace of line just pop into my head while I'm just dozing and listening, and then I expect the musicians to take these ideas and interpret them. My motto is to represent the artist on disc, not be the artist on disc, otherwise it just sounds boring after 18 months when everything you do sounds like you and it just labels your work. Oh it's him again. I'd still like to be working in ten years time.'
From rap to rock. This is Steve's motto. It has taken him a long time to prove that one man is capable of many things. He has now travelled that route and aims to travel it may times again, bridging a gap which was previously unbridgable. Who knows what he will be working on in ten years time?
Interview by Janet Angus
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