June 2015 represented 25 years since the birth of Audio Media and Kevin Godley’s highly ambitious musical project One World One Voice. To mark both anniversaries, we caught up with engineer Stephen Tayler – interviewed in the first ever issue – to discuss, among other things, how technology has moved forward since the early ‘90s.
We’ve been so busy trying to keep up with the multitude of manufacturers celebrating important anniversaries this year – Powersoft and Sennheiser among them – that we almost forgot about a major milestone of our own.
That’s right, 25 years ago this June, the debut issue of Audio Media was published. Now, I know we’ve moved on from the days of the old AM, but it would be wrong not to mark the occasion in some way, surely?
And what better way to do this than catch up with engineer and producer Stephen Tayler (main picture), who was interviewed in that very first edition in June 1990 about One World One Voice (OWOV), a highly ambitious project created by musician and director Kevin Godley that saw Tayler and fellow producer Rupert Hine record hundreds of musicians in a variety of locations all over the world forf a ‘musical chain tape’ eventually presented as a feature-length film on the BBC.
The idea was that each new musician met on the journey would either have to come up with something that follows on from the previous artist’s contribution, or add to what was already there, with Sting, Lou Reed, Dave Stewart, Joe Strummer, Eddy Grant and many more all taking part along the way.
And so, to recognise a quarter of a century since OWOV and the birth of our beloved magazine, we took a trip down to Real World Studios, where Tayler operates out of one of the long-term spaces, to test his memory of the recording process and get his thoughts on the impact of technology on his profession.
Tayler (below left) with Sting and Rupert Hine
Nowadays, a portable equipment list for a job like this would be fairly brief, and made up of gear designed to fit into a rucksack, but that wasn’t the case in the early ‘90s.
“It was like 'we think we're going to go somewhere and we might need to record in a beautiful recording facility or a hotel room or on the street.' We needed elements for recording, microphones, playback systems, but how can we do that and make it portable?” says Tayler, whose other notable achievements include mixing the last two Kate Bush albums, and fulfilling an unusual vocal engineer role for her sold-out live shows at Hammersmith Apollo in London last year.
“Existing technology for film sound at that time was restrictive in terms of recording music. These days you could have an audio interface, a laptop, a bundle of microphones, headphones, maybe a playback speaker and there's your system – you have everything you need there.”
“Back then, a small portable multi-track recording device really didn't exist, so I opted to get two portable Sony TCD-D10 Pro DAT machines – one for playback, one for recording – and this was the basic idea, but thinking about redundancy I thought we'd go for four of those. We were offered another fairly compact solution – an eight-track cassette machine from Tascam. The idea for that was that it would be something I could compile onto when we were on the move. It ended up being incredibly useful for recording bands.
“We also looked at available audio workstations, which were absolutely in their infancy in 1990. Pro Tools hadn't arrived yet – there was Sound Tools, a stereo editor for Mac, and that wasn't very portable. There was a device called the DAR Soundstation, which was a console with a built-in display – bulky, heavy, not road tested."
One of the many changes Tayler has noticed is the ease of which audio professionals can now record on the move, and the fact that many jobs in 1990 that had to be done instantly can now be pushed back.
“When compiling and comparing audio 'on the fly' now, you could plug in your laptop and work anywhere, anytime and do incredibly powerful things. We were trying to invest ways of putting things together that would ultimately force us to make decisions as we went along,” explained Tayler.
“We had to think ahead and be decisive. Today, you'd probably say 'I don't need to make that decision now, I could leave it open-ended.' The ability now to be able to defer decisions has had a profound effect on the final result.”
Tayler pictured in 1990 with his equipment before starting work on One World One Voice
So are we really better off now with all this helpful technology, or has the ever-increasing practicality of audio equipment made things too easy for engineers? Does Tayler prefer the days when his role was more complicated, but perhaps required more skill, or has he become a fan of modern methods?
“There is room for both approaches. I really appreciate the fact that I had to learn under those circumstances and I've seen things change. There are times where I love to leave things open-ended but also I like the discipline of having to make a decision and see what happens next. It would be a good thing for younger engineers to try out some of the original techniques – the other day I was talking to one of the junior engineers here at Real World who was saying 'oh my god I have to do my first session on tape, I've got to get used to the idea that there's no backup and if I punch in in the wrong place there's no Undo button.'
“It's great because it focuses you, it's a very tactile thing and it's good to not be looking at a representation of what's going and it fine-tunes your listening abilities.
“It also depends on the project you're doing, but judging by some of the tracks I'm sent to remix and I see the level and depth of processing and treatments that they have gone through, I'm led to believe that they have been worked on and worked on continuously. Sometimes I find that if I remove all the in-line processing I go 'Ah! There's the sound!' I think it's easy to go round in a vicious circle and keep adding to it. When you don't have that, it makes you a lot more disciplined about what you're doing along the way and prioritising.”
For better or worse?
It’s clear that he believes those coming through the system at the moment could do with learning a few of the techniques he picked up before the rise of DAWs and digital gear, but what about the way the tech itself has evolved? Tayler, who has recently been compiling, premastering and mixing a number of tracks on Songs for Tibet II, a new album celebrating the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday, welcomes the vast technological improvements he has witnessed over the past few decades, but reiterates the point that engineers should be careful not to become too reliant equipment, and keep pushing themselves creatively.
“I think it is better in every way. We still have everything that we had before, but it's opened up the world or recording and audio to lots more people, although there might not be so many specialists as there were before,” reveals Tayler.
“With the kind of processing that's available in programs such as Logic, or any kind of DAW, it that can lead people in similar directions, and people do start emulating other people's work. There's nothing wrong with that, but I'd like to see people having to work a little bit harder to be more individual. There are a lot of people like that, but it worries me that the preset psychology is leading to a lot of homogenisation.
“I want to encourage people to step outside the boundaries.”
Handling something like One World One Voice from an audio perspective would obviously be a lot easier in 2015, but you don’t hear of many other projects like it happening these days – one of the main reasons being that getting a bunch of artists to work together on a piece of music is a lot easier now than it used to be.
“With the development of online services and the Internet it is now easier for us to collaborate. If you tried to do another One World One Voice it would be a very different beast. There was something called One Giant Leap that came out around 2000 that was done on a smaller scale with a laptop and camcorder,” recalls Tayler. “That was taking advantage of doing something in a more controlled way, whereas we were doing it with film cameras and a crew because that's the way we had to do it.
“We didn't have high production values; we were on a very tight leash. It ended up being a great piece of music, and that was the point.”