Audio Pro International’s focus on the best of the industry’s emerging audio engineers continues with the latest addition to our Rising Stars section.
Based at London's Metropolis Studios, Xavier Stephenson takes us through an album session he engineered for The Joy Formidable last year, and reveals how he learnt a great deal from Grammy award-winner Robert Orton...
Where did you study?
I studied at an off-shoot of the University of Manchester. It was a media and music production course which dealt with the basics of recording and mixing. Although it was a good grounding, the professional practice is very different to what you learn in the classroom, so once I started work I had to re-learn everything.
Where are you based?
London’s Metropolis Studios, which houses an unbelievable studio team. The engineers, assistants and techs here have some of the best minds and attitudes in the world and it is because of these guys that we are able to deliver quality in a day and age where many big studio complexes are no longer seen as necessary.
What made you decide to pursue a career in audio?
I prefer to view it as trying to pursue a career in music. Granted, I’m approaching it from a more technical aspect, but the result I’m interested in is the final artistic achievement presented through music. This stems from my youth when music was the only thing that really brought out an emotional reaction in me, be it good or bad, so I wanted to spend my working life helping create music which would provoke a similar reaction in others. I could go deeper than this, but I think my views are probably best left for a philosophical or anthropological journal!
What are you working on at the moment?
Other than the day to day at Metropolis, I’ve been working with a host of international artists from Switzerland, Italy and most recently I’ve been working on developing a young French artist who became known nationally in her home country through a televised talent show. However, as seems to be the case with these things she became embroiled with bad contracts and bad management that curtailed any possibility of a career before it had even started. She has a lot of talent and is trying to push on again so I’m helping her with that. I am also involved in a project called www.drumoff.tv happening later in the year at Metropolis, which should be exciting.
Who has been your favourite artist to work with so far, and why?
I really enjoyed The Joy Formidable album session I engineered last year. They settled in for ten days or so in order to get the important elements recorded where good acoustic spaces are critical, including tracking all the drums for the album plus strings, harp and percussion. Ritzy and Rhydian (guitar, bass & vocals) had sketched the drum parts for the songs and it was up to Matt (drums) and I to work out how to recreate it properly.
He had spent a good while in a rehearsal room coming up with extra ideas and the logistics of how to do it so that we stood a chance of getting it done successfully. We had three drum kits set-up in three different rooms for different sounds and styles, and we floated between them depending on what was needed for each song. We would use one to form the backbone of the song, and then occasionally overlay with another as some of the rhythm parts were incredibly dense.
At the end of each day Ritzy & Rhydian would come down from recording their parts on their own rig and listen to what we’d been up to. It was a little nerve-wracking as we were never too sure whether we’d hit the mark or if we were way off. After the first couple of days, I started to get positive reactions so I knew we were heading in the right direction. We had a great time doing it, and went through a load of Partridge references along the way! Andy Wallace went on to mix the record. I know he doesn’t use samples to replace sounds, only to trigger verbs and delays, so what I’m hearing is exactly what I recorded and it sounds pretty beefy.
How did your time spent assisting Robert Orton help you progress as an engineer?
I spent a long time with Rob and learnt a great deal about musical, technical and client aspects, but essentially I learnt that there is always a solution to a problem. Sometimes we would receive requests at 3am which at the time seemed insurmountable, but Rob always managed to stay calm and deal with any situation. Sometimes we were sent multi-tracks which were such a mess and sounded so horrendous that I never thought that we would get something sounding good out of it, but after some serious work and time it always astounded me what he was able to achieve.
I also learnt that you don’t have to monitor at ridiculous decibels all day, therefore saving my ears for hopefully a long career in listening! I can’t stress how important it is to look after your hearing, as you can’t get it back once it’s gone.
What advice do you have for those looking to get into the industry?
Have a clear objective of what you want to achieve. Too many young people now think they can do it all because they’ve had access to software that has enabled them to try things out, but it takes years and years of specialising in one area to become good at it – be it writing, recording, mixing, producing or mastering. You also need to have the right attitude, be prepared to work long, hard hours, have no social life for many years. Most importantly, be humble and open to learning from those who do it day in, day out. You can usually tell within the first couple of days whether someone has the right attitude and desire to work within a studio environment. It’s a very small percentage, as the rest find it too hard or it’s not what they imagined it to be.
Which console are you currently using, and how are you finding it?
I’ll use whichever one is available. I’m more interested in the mics, mic pres and room sound when recording, and the Flying Fader system is a godsend when mixing. I’m lucky that there are four very different types of board at Metropolis, equally all with positive and negative points. I’ve also been lucky enough to work over at Electric Lady in New York and I loved their Neve 8078 as it felt like a tank when you were using it, really chunky!
Do you use any outboard effects/EQ? If so, what are they used on and why?
It’s all about outboard as far as I’m concerned. Plug-ins are great for certain tasks like really trying to hone in frequencies to notch out, or creating a specific effect, but you can’t beat outboard for the real thing. A lot of the time you have to stay ‘in-the-box’ to be able to work quickly, but computer emulations have been trying to recreate the sound of outboard equipment since they first appeared, so if you have the chance to break it out and use some outboard then use it. It worked in all the decades before now and everyone comments on how great records used to sound, so it’ll still work in all the decades to come and hopefully we’ll get back to a place where people care about what they’re listening to.
You've already met quite a few, but which band/musician would you most like to work with?
If Daft Punk want to make another record like the one they’ve just released by real recording with proper musicians with care for the quality of the sound and a disregard of loudness, then I’m in! Or go back in time and record the Chili Peppers from the early 90s – records made on pure emotion and artistic intent with the artists off their faces – then I would!
To get involved in our Rising Stars column, whether you are an engineer who is new to the industry and would like to be featured, or an experienced engineer who would like to nominate a particular student/apprentice, please contact Audio Pro International editor Adam Savage on email@example.com or +44 (0)1992 535646.
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