The Price of Fame
...Is already hugely successful as an engineer, producer, musician and programmer for the likes of Grace Jones and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Paul Tingen finds fame has made him disillusioned and cynical.
Steve Lipson is the man whose engineering skills threw Trevor Horn into production superstardom, and whose Synclavier programming launched Frankie Goes To Hollywood. But success has disillusioned him to a frightening degree.
AS HE ENTERS the room, Steve Lipson looks strikingly unfashionable. With his long hair, beard and tatty old clothes, he comes closer to the old hippie stereotype than anything else. Not exactly the kind of person one would expect to be closely associated with the well-packaged, acutely-marketed world of ZTT. We are in Sarm West in West London, one of two studios part-owned by Trevor Horn. The predominant colour is a stylish blue, and there are '30s Coca-Cola adverts on the walls, giving the cafeteria a slight American feel. Yet the breakfast menu pushes you abruptly back to British reality: "sausages, bacon, eggs and toast", all for £2.50.
Lipson pours us some tea, then guides us with frightening speed through the three studios before settling in the "programming room" where we are surrounded by two digital Sony 24-track recorders, a Trident mixing desk, an IBM personal computer, an Akai S900 sampler and, right in front of us, dominating the room, a Synclavier.
Lipson — tall, loutish, sitting awkwardly in his chair with his legs under his backside lights a cigarette. We talk about the studio, his only prior experience with a journalist ("I was immediately misquoted that's how the story that Frankie couldn't play came into the world"), and his production work with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Propaganda and, most recently, the Tommy Chase Jazz Quartet.
Suddenly he makes a wild gesture and says: "The sort of conversation that we're having is really a bit funny, because I don't know what the fuck I do. When I'm starting work on an album or a song, I have no idea what's going to happen. I haven't got a vision of how it's going to be. I've got no vision at all. I find it suspect when people claim they've got a vision in this business, unless they've scored it all out, like an arranger. Working in the studio is like walking with a blindfold on, and anyone who tells you differently is blowing themselves up a bit.
"We're in a pop world here and we're trying to move forward, but inevitably, the only good things that happen are by accident, by a freak of circumstance. I mean, do you really think that people sit down in the studio and go 'morning, morning' and next they've got a great sound? That's not at all what happens. What happens is that people are desperate and say: 'Fuck, what are we going to do? This track sounds terrible.' And nobody's got a clue. Then somebody thinks: 'Oh, well, what happens if I press this button?', and then utters in amazement: 'My God, that's fantastic!' That's how it goes.
"The way I work in the studio is by complete hit and miss, and I don't know anyone who doesn't work like that. It's the art: you keep going until you think it's happening."
Lipson shifts his position in his chair, then continues. "I know Trevor Horn works like that. Grace Jones' Slave to the Rhythm happened like that. Really, the whole album is a collection of experiments in which we were trying to create a good single. The way that worked was that we would have something which was OK, but just not good enough to be a single. Trevor would have a bit of doubt, and I'd say: 'Oh, yeah, great. I'll start again', because it was no skin off my nose. So Trevor gave me a week, and I recreated the song on the Synclavier — I did nearly the whole album on the Synclavier, by the way. After a week Trevor would come back and say: 'Oh, yeah, that sounds good'. So we'd go back into the studio, look at it, and then suddenly he'd say: 'No, no, no, not really. How about if...?' And I'd work again on it for another week.
"To this day we're still like that with each other. If I'm thinking during a mix: 'Hmm, it's not quite there', then he picks up on that immediately, and off we are again into the land of nowhere."
Yet the discoveries Horn and Lipson have made in this "Land of Nowhere" are among the most spectacular-sounding and influential in the world of late-'80s pop. Their collaboration dates from the beginning of the decade, when Lipson got a call from Horn, asking him to do a bit of engineering work.
Lipson wasn't exactly pleased with Horn's request. "I'd been engineering for a while in London and France, and was rather fed up with it. Engineering on its own is a nothingness — you're not doing anything. It's a terrible activity because it's so boring. You're just sitting there pushing up the faders while everyone makes fools of themselves, and nobody's having a musical idea.
"If you're working in the studio, the fun is in telling the keyboard player to move up an inversion rather than in pushing a fader."
"By the time Trevor phoned me I was fading out of it. I was finding myself projects to produce. They were just tin-pot productions for which I hardly got any money, but I preferred it to engineering. So I went to Trevor feeling like I didn't want to do it, that I was only going to work there my way.
"And of course, that was exactly what he wanted. He wanted somebody who would just do his own thing, giving him the opportunity to come in now and then and give some comments. So I thought: 'This is good fun, because I can do whatever I want with this guy', and stayed. On top of that Trevor also liked my guitar-playing a lot, so all of a sudden, from being hired as an engineer, I was doing everything that I wanted to do: playing and producing. Trevor would have the grand overview on the production side, telling me to start a song again or something, and I'd do everything. I learned a lot from that because I didn't have the responsibility: he took the rap and I made the record."
STEVE LIPSON STARTED his musical career playing guitar in a band in the beginning of the '70s. "It was a great band, we had a great concept and a lot of interest from record companies, but we didn't think that anything they offered us was good enough. Basically, we blew it."
Next the former hippie met someone who wrote jingles, and who needed a studio of his own. He employed Lipson to build a studio, and once that was done, asked him to engineer it.
"I said: 'Me?' because I'd never set out to become an engineer. But I did it. I got a bit over-enthusiastic and put 30 microphones in front of everything, to figure out what they would do at a certain angle and distance and so on. That served me well. But even then, if you're working in the studio the fun is in telling the keyboard player to move up an inversion rather than in pushing a fader.
"Also, by default, I learned why my guitar never sounded good. It wasn't because of the engineer or the equipment, as I always thought, it was because I was a naff player. The sound of an instrument comes from the way it's played, not from the equipment."
It was a way of looking at the recording process which led Lipson to produce several artists, amongst them Lindisfarne and Sniff 'n' The Tears. He had a hit in the USA with the latter with the song Driver's Seat, and did an album with them, Fickle Heart. Disagreement with the studio over the distribution of that album's royalties led him into a career as a freelance engineer which, as we saw above, he soon began to loathe.
Yet the call from Trevor Horn kept him in the engineering business, albeit in a different way. Lipson became assistant producer, guitarist and engineer on Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome and Grace Jones' Slave to the Rhythm, and went on to produce Propaganda's debut album A Secret Wish, a yet unreleased album by The Tommy Chase Jazz Quartet and, of course, Frankie's latest album, Liverpool.
"Initially I was very dubious about doing the new Frankie album. I mean, who wouldn't be, after that series of number ones?"
To start with that most recent and most impressive-sounding venture, how come Lipson, not Horn, ended up as producer?
"There are loads and loads of reasons that I could give you, but primarily, I suppose, if Trevor had done the album, there wouldn't have been much room for the lads. That's what it comes down to. You know, when Trevor is involved in something, he's not easily satisfied. He likes to work with either the best musicians or no musicians at all. The lads aren't either. They're musicians, but not the best. So Trevor would have gotten frustrated. He wouldn't have spent two weeks trying to get the drum track for 'Rage Hard' as I did. Even during the recording of Pleasuredome there were moments when he walked out of the studio in frustration.
"On the other hand, the record company had suddenly thrown Frankie in the deep end and said: 'Right boys, you have to behave like a normal band now and make a record'. The album really had to sound like a group album. We all felt, me inclusive, that the group had to prove themselves.
"Initially I was very dubious about doing the album. I mean, who wouldn't be, after that series of number ones? There was no way that, during the course of events, they would have written the same calibre of songs. I wasn't interested at all. Then I heard the demo of 'Rage Hard', and that convinced me to do it."
In the end, the album took nearly six months to complete, and was largely recorded — for tax reasons — at Wisseloord Studios in Holland. The main thing the band kept telling Lipson was that the album had to sound "heavy". The demos contained only the bare outlines of songs — melody, some chords and a rhythm — with which Lipson and the band started work in the studio.
"They're not workaholics, you know. Only one of them is, the drummer — he goes bonkers. Still, it was important that it went the way the band wanted it to go. I wouldn't have done them justice otherwise. And at the end of the day, we got a No. 4 hit here, and we've done very well in Europe, which is good, because it could have been a total failure."
As for the process of recording Liverpool, Lipson admits to having used an unusual and laborious method. You could also call it a bit outrageous. Working with two 24-track digital Sony tape recorders, he could make as many 24-track copies of any song as he wanted and play around with them, always keeping the original...
"It's vital in production to be willing to throw away something that's taken you a solid week of work. If you can't do that, you're nowhere."
"Let's say that the drummer goes out and does eight takes of drums. With those two machines I can piece together a really good drum track, all A1 quality. For example, I can use the first verse from the second take and combine it with the second chorus from the fifth take. I did the same with the vocals. Rather than sampling a whole chorus and flying it in, which makes records sound like clockwork, I can make copies with the 24-track and compose a good vocal."
Working in this way, Lipson ended up with over fifty 24-track versions of 'Rage Hard'. To keep track of all the multitrack versions of various songs and what was on them, the producer wrote his own database program on the IBM computer.
"I run the whole session from this computer. I mean, digital is the business nowadays. Perhaps not so much the sound quality, I can't be bothered too much about that, but the convenience of being able to make these copies is staggering. You can be very bold with your erasures. That's what made me realise that I needed this program, because you can go on and on."
Apart from listing all the different multitrack versions of a song, Lipson's database program lists and stores all the different sequences he's used for various songs, all his Synclavier and S900 samples, and all the two-track masters of songs in his collection, whether PCM digital, ½" analogue or ¼' analogue.
"It's also a calculator", Lipson adds. "It automatically works out the bar numbers for me if I give it the time signature and the tempo, and it makes SMPTE calculations. It calculates the offset between two tape machines when I'm linking them up. So synchronising is really easy."
Apart from his database program, Lipson uses an Octave Plateau 64-track MIDI sequencing program, a Wordstar word processing program ("for writing and editing lyrics"), a DX editing program called DX Design, and Patchmaster, which stores all his MIDI synthesiser patches.
YET DESPITE THIS proliferation of technological opportunities, Lipson is well aware of the danger of not seeing the wood for the trees, and of holding onto work which should really be discarded, but which took too much blood, sweat and tears to make.
"It's a vital thing in production to be willing to throw away something that's taken you a solid week of work. If you can't do that, you're nowhere. So I have people coming into the studio to listen to what we've done. A good producer should listen to what everyone has to say. I get angry with artists when they get angry with people coming in and making comments. It's a love and hate thing, really. I really hate it, but I love it because it's input, and the people might be right.
"If you lay a snare drum a bit back, if you make it a bit lazy, it becomes someone, and if you make it a bit pushy, it becomes someone else."
"Jill Sinclair (MD of ZTT and Sarm) is very good at it. She comes in now and then and makes those incredibly sweeping remarks, like: 'Great, but I lose it somewhere, because there's something going on which I don't like'. So I say 'What?' and I think about it, and nine times out of ten she's hit the nail on the head.
"It's back to the trial and error process. That's why it always amazes me that some producers never wanted to hear what I had to say while I was still working as an engineer. I could never understand that. I remember one time when I was engineering for Gerry Rafferty at Monserrat. They were doing a track, and the guitar player was playing something. I went up to him and said: 'Hey, if you did this bit in that bit it would sound amazing', and he agreed. Suddenly Rafferty asked him: 'What was that?', and the guitar player explained. Then Rafferty looked round to me and said: 'Look, you stick to engineering, right?' I was perplexed. I couldn't understand it."
We've touched briefly on some of Lipson's association with the new music technology, but there's one area which hasn't yet come under scrutiny. Apart from being one of the country's foremost engineers and producers, and apart from being a guitarist, a composer and, apparently, a computer programmer, Lipson is also acclaimed as one of the world's leading exponents in the use of the Synclavier. It's the Synclavier which enables Lipson to recreate any part played by a musician — either because the musician lacks proficiency on his instrument, or for conceptual reasons, as on Slave to the Rhythm. And it's the Synclavier which lies at the root of his studio and arranging work, and which has enabled him to develop his own style of production.
It was maliciously suggested to us (by reliable sources) that Lipson created Liverpool almost entirely on the Synclavier, vocals included. Only the guitar parts weren't played on the Synclavier, these being played by Lipson himself... The producer shrugs his shoulders when quizzed about this, and doesn't want to talk about it. Yet later, in a different context, he says that all the bass and drum parts on Liverpool were played by the band. Then again, he explains his attraction to working with bands with limited playing capabilities.
"When you work with a group that can play, your work is cut out for you, you've got nothing to do. It's all very straightforward, you know what the record is gonna sound like from the start, and you're hardly likely to make a record that no one's ever heard before".
Clearly, then, Lipson has an ambition to express his own musical ideas through (or with) the band he's working with.
But leaving aside the issue of what Lipson does and does not play on Frankie's records, Grace Jones' Slave to the Rhythm certainly was largely "performed" by Lipson on the Synclavier. Despite that, it's a remarkably human-sounding record, showcasing Lipson's ability to endow a machine with human characteristics. Every track sounds as though it has a different drummer at work. How does he do it?
"I've figured out how to program personality into the Synclavier. I can adjust one track to another within one millisecond, and I can change the starting time of one track as opposed to another. Doing that shows me everything, it shows me how feels are created. You know, if you lay a snare drum a bit back, if you make it a bit lazy, it becomes someone, and if you make it a bit pushy, it becomes someone else. That's what makes the sound, really. The sound of something has to do with the way it's played - whether it's a program or a player — and of course the part. It's the part and the attitude of the player that makes the sound."
"Pop music is in a cul-de-sac at the moment. I see a new group coming along, and all I see is a new haircut. It's meaningless to me."
Lipson first got confronted with the Synclavier during sessions for the Propaganda single 'Dr Mabuse', when Dave Whittaker rolled one in and Trevor Horn bought it because he was impressed with its sampling quality. The machine then spent an eternity sitting unused in a corner of the studio, simply because nobody knew how to use it. Until, that is, Lipson figured out how to write a bass drum sequence into it. He used it for the first time on Frankie's 'Two Tribes', as part of a programming and recording endeavour which took an epic three months to complete.
Lipson recalls: "At the time of 'Two Tribes' the Synclavier was in its infancy. To get a sequence working in it then, you had to write the sequence by hand — you physically wrote it in on the computer, compiling it into computer language, and then you played it on the thing while it would spit out whatever it could spit out. Then you had to run it again and write in the notes which it hadn't managed. For a bass drum you had to run it four times, which gave you four tracks, so after getting the level right you finally had a bass drum track. Those three months were mainly spent on programming. In the end, we had a track which sounded remarkably like Frankie's original demo."
Nowadays things are, of course, very different, with Lipson having the full Synclavier system at his disposal at Sarm West. "I prefer it to the Fairlight, because the sound quality is way better. Even Fairlight III is no comparison, though neither is the price, of course."
Lipson and Horn now each have their own programming suite across the road from Sarm West, which they use for writing sequences, editing, and other musical activities. Lipson's has his IBM computer there, together with the Akai S900, an Oberheim Matrix 12, Roland TR707 and TR727 drum machines, a Yamaha FB01 module, an Akai 12-track tape recorder, and a complete hi-fi system.
What does he think of the impact new music technology has had on music?
"Well, Michelangelo used technology, didn't he? For the statue of David he had to use a lot of technology to get that bit of rock where he wanted it. A lot of people in the art world use technology. Really, it's the mix of science and arts which is important."
Suddenly his tone of voice changes. "But recently, pop music has gone a bit...science only. I think technology has had a terrible influence on music. The songs have gone. That's why there's a '60s revival. I mean, what's in the charts now? '60s and black dance music. That says it all really, doesn't it? Nobody's interested anymore in today's music. Ten years ago you'd buy a record and it would mean something to you, you would live to that record. But things are different now. You can now buy a Casio drumbox sampler for £99. That means music is everywhere, you can do it at home, and at the same time it's nothing. I can see all those people sitting at home with their little drumboxes, going takka, takka, takka. And they say: 'Oh, wow, great, let's release it', or 'I like that bass sound'. But what's a bass sound got to do with music, with a good song? That's why pop music is in a cul-de-sac at the moment. I see a new group coming along, and all I see is a new haircut. It's meaningless to me."
But hasn't Steve Lipson played a part in bringing this state of affairs into being? Doesn't he have any ambitions to make some more meaningful music? The producer looks genuinely surprised.
"Me? Change the world? No, thank you very much. Basically I'm earning a living, that's what it comes down to. I mean, I know what I want to do. I would like to write some film music, but further. And I'm working, I get immersed in what I'm doing, making the same rubbish as everyone else — though one likes to think with a little bit more class. In the end of it all, technology is meaningless, and all that really matters is the tune.
"Apart from that, in the grander scheme of things, pop music is totally unimportant. And that's what I love about it: the sort of nothingness of it. The silly haircuts on stage. I like the music and I like its irrelevance. We're in a business that isn't like designing a 700-seater aircraft, or being a politician. I mean, it's nothing really, is it? It's just morons in these rooms, doodling and making bits of music."
For a man whose work has helped give listening pleasure to millions, Steve Lipson is not a very optimistic man — or a cheering one.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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