Stephen Lipson: A Satisfying Emotional Journey
BY LARRY CRANE
When John Baccigaluppi and I interviewed Trevor Horn [Tape Op #89] in 2012 at his SARM West Studios, the name Stephen Lipson continually came up. For six years Trevor and Stephen worked together on many sonically groundbreaking and top-selling albums, with Stephen contributing production, engineering, mixing, programming, and guitars as well as a variety of other instruments. With records by Paul McCartney, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Grace Jones, Simple Minds, Annie Lennox, and Mike Oldfield under his belt, you’d think that Stephen could relax, but work carries on. Soundtrack mixing and production with Hans Zimmer led to producing this year’s Billie Eilish James Bond theme “No Time to Die” for the film of the same name – plus mixing the score and soundtrack. He is also in the process of producing a new Lionel Richie album, as well as mixing the soundtrack for the upcoming Mission: Impossible 7 film.
I found a fun news video from your SARM era in the ‘80s; the duo was called Act.
You had MIDI running, and everything was sequenced and coming through the console from samplers and synthesizers. That was a great snapshot of you in that time, where you’re saying, “Look, we can change anything. This is how records are being made now.” What caused you to dive in and embrace new technology in the early ‘80s?
When computers first became affordable, there was a guy in the U.K. called Clive Sinclair. He made this computer called the ZX80. It was really small, with one of those keyboards where you press the membrane.
Oh, yeah. Little bubble tops?
Yeah, that’s it. It had no RAM, no hard drive, nothing. But I was intrigued by it, and I programmed something; a game from a magazine. I copied the code into it, and it worked! I thought, “This is remarkable.” I backed it up onto a cassette, and then loaded it up. I was always intrigued by the idea, the concept, of computing, because it was fascinating. This is all aside from being a musician; a parallel interest. When I started working at SARM, I can’t quite remember why, but Trevor Horn bought a Synclavier [sampler]. For a few months it sat in the room. Every time we moved, it moved with us, and it was a huge rack!
Right, it wasn’t small!
No, it was over 20U [rack spaces high] and obviously needed two people, up and down the stairs, from the studio upstairs to the studio downstairs. It had a big keyboard. We’d be plugging the rack up and nobody used it. One day I said to him, “Look, why don’t I see if I can get a noise out of this?” It became a quest. I ended up using it. I could say “programmer,” but I’m not really a programmer. But that’s sort of what I had to be to get what was in my head out of the machine. I hated it, absolutely hated it. But it was there. Then I found, as it got easier, it was such a great, convenient, spontaneous way to make music using this technology.
Right. To be able to control from sequencing and MIDI.
Not to replace musicians, but to have an idea and to realize it by using a computer. That’s what drew Frank Zappa to the whole idea as well; being able to have an idea and realize it exactly how you imagine it.
Right. He was doing quite a bit with that.
Yeah, big time.
That’s an interesting parallel to your production and engineering; being a musician and songwriter. That instant idea, or quicker creation of sounds, would make sense to me.
Actually, yes. But funnily enough, that gear is a curse when it comes to writing. I am guiltier than most, because I can’t sing. I can help with top lines, so I’ll come up with an idea, and generally that will be created by a soft synth. I’ll hold a note. “Oh, I like that.” That will inspire me to do something; I don’t know what it is. We call it writing. I don’t know. What I’m saying is the gear is responsible for me not picking up a guitar and playing or coming up with a tune on the guitar. It’s a bit of a curse, I would say.
Yeah. This was a fascinating time, where there were engineers, musicians, and producers who were pushing back against the way that records had been made. Now look where we are, where we’re assembling samples, loops, and bits and bobs and making a song.
Yeah. Now this is completely open for debate, and please strike me down when I say this, but from that era to now, it seems to me that the only progress we’ve had is smaller, faster, and cheaper. That’s it. I don’t know what else there’s been. If you think about it, technology leads the arts. This gear, a laptop, can be in the hands of anyone, hence four bars that repeat and get louder and softer. I get it. I’m as guilty as anyone, I’m sure. We are the consequence of that, maybe.
Yeah. But any time the technology leads the way, there are people who don’t take advantage of it in a creative way and do something very simple and uninteresting. Then there are people like you and Trevor Horn and such who take it and go, “How can I make this compelling, emotional, and musical?”
Yeah, there’s a saying for it, “The tail wagging the dog.” The gear is there to be used, but not to command anything, one would hope. Of course, I contradicted that by saying how I’m writing now. I’ve just done an album with some people, and my job was to come up with the tracks. That’s how I came up with the tracks; by getting a noise. The technology, the gear, did lead me into the writing mode, but that’s what it is. Ideally the gear should serve us and not need us, I would like to think.
Yeah. But when you stumble across an accidental sample, synth patch, or a loop, that’s only going to happen because of advances in technology.
Yeah, of course. You’re absolutely right.
Recognizing those moments and looking back, I went and listened to Annie Lennox’s Diva, and I thought, “Damn! It still sounds great!”
Yeah, but the technology didn’t lead it. We used it, but it didn’t lead it. Annie would sit with a keyboard, write the songs, and notate what she was coming up with.
A lot of times these days people are expecting recording gear to do more for them than it really does. To impart some kind of “magic” to the audio.
Yeah, of course. It’s that thing, isn’t it? We want it to sound like the ‘60s or the ‘70s. There was an artist who I spoke to the other day who wanted me to work on her record. She kept using the word “analog.” I was very quiet, and then I said, “Before we decide to jump into this, I’ve got to tell you I hate analog!” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I can’t tell you how long I’ve only been inside Pro Tools. I don’t use analog gear. I don’t like it anymore.” She got back to my manager and said, “Can you find someone else who’s into analog gear?” I thought, “This is amazing! Talk about missing the point.”
They’re coming to you because they like the sound of a record you’ve made.
It’s like saying that the only way you’re going to make a good record is to use this magical equipment, and none of what they liked about these albums came from you.
“It’s going to make the difference.”
Coaching somebody through a great vocal is far more important than putting it to tape.
Well, on a scale of 1 to 100, using tape wouldn’t even touch 1 for me. It makes no difference. The only difference it makes is that it’s much harder, more expensive, super inconvenient, and noisy. Apart from that, the sound difference doesn’t bother me.
How do you proceed on a session with collaborating with someone these days?
I’m currently working with a Canadian artist in Toronto. She works with a programmer/engineer/producer guy who’s really good. They’ll send me a track, and I will give them feedback. It might be very little. It might be, “Start again.” That’s what will happen; it suits me fine. The only downside is the time it takes, and also getting an idea across isn’t so simple. When you’re in the room, you can be vague but still get your point across. Sometimes I’m pretty vague. Like, “It’s not hitting me. I don’t know, maybe you’ve got the wrong harmony.” Or, “The rhythm isn’t right here. I can’t give you specifics.” But if you’re in the room with someone, you can say, “Well, how about this?” Or, “No, that’s not right.” There’s a flow.
Otherwise, I like it. I do a lot of film work at the moment; that’s been remote for a while.
With the film mixing for Hans Zimmer and others, what’s the process?
Okay, so it’s hard to explain. Every situation’s different. I’m not going to specify a movie, but let’s say Hans has asked me to work on a movie – several of which I’ve ended up with a score “Produced By” credit, but also several have just said “Mixed By.” I’m never quite sure what the difference is. I get what’s called a synth master. Now what a synth master is, is it’s a cue. You know what a cue is?
Yeah, a piece of music written for a spot in the film.
For a scene. I’ll get a synth master of a cue, which could be two tracks or a thousand, depending. It could be five seconds long or 15 minutes. Often scores are hybrids now. They’re synth-based with a fake orchestra, hopefully with a real orchestra thrown on top at the end. That’s the pattern of a lot of scores.
Yeah, we hear that a lot.
A synth master is everything apart from the real orchestra. Let’s say I’ve got six weeks. Sometimes a lot more, sometimes a lot less. In those six weeks, I’ll be getting these cues through. I’ll have a template. The template is a key item, one I can spend a week figuring out for each movie. When these cues come in, they have a sound palette. I’ll know what sounds they’re going to use, so it’s all split into stems with reverbs, delays, and whatever. Ready for action, so this audio can be dragged into the template. Ideally, and often, I have an assistant who deals with that for me. I get anything up to 70 or 80 pieces of music, and each one – depending on the content – I will sit back, listen to, and – it’s not right to say that I do what I want, but ultimately, I’ll do what I want. It can be nothing. It can be replacing all the basses with one bass. It can be augmenting the bass. It can be putting a kick in or putting a whole different rhythm element in, removing parts, and changing the storyline of the piece. The melody; the top line. What you’re focused on. I’ll listen to it and produce the cues. Not really, but kind of. I’ll do whatever I feel is needed to make the cues speak as well as they can and deliver the emotion it’s supposed to deliver. The actual mixing, ah… but then that goes back to everything. Mixing’s a funny one for me. I’m confused about where the line is.
With film, you have to deliver a multitude of stems for the actual soundtrack mixing, as opposed to a stereo mix.
For the soundstage.
That’s quite a different delivery than an album.
It’s a huge technical achievement to deliver a film score. It’s quite extraordinary; the amount of skill that everyone involved has is mind-blowing. It’s amazing going between that work and songs. I love working on songs, but then I get so bored because they’re all the same structure, in a way. The same elements. Again, another generalization. A film score is a constant surprise. I’ve just done a movie where one cue went through so many different flavors of music, from salsa to rock to orchestral to half-time. Mixing one cue, a big cue in a movie, is like mixing an album.
Right, with that many changes.
Yeah. Also, not only do I then get the orchestra to integrate, but “adds” constantly appear. I’ll get an email or a phone call. “Oh, we’ve got this guitar player. He’s going to play on half the cues.” Someone will send me guitars that I integrate, or don’t integrate. It’s this huge beast that needs taming.
When did you first start getting into the film score work?
About 10 or 11 years ago.
Who approached you initially?
Hans Zimmer. I’ve known him since I was young; I met him while playing at a gig. It was a Buggles gig, actually. After the gig, he came up and we had a chat. He said, “Oh, we must work together.” I was thinking, “Yeah, right. Okay. Whatever. We’ll work together.” Then he called me! He got me over and explained as much as he could the process of film scoring. He gave me a lot of time, which in retrospect was extraordinary, because he’s busy. Then back I went to London. A couple of months later, he said, “I’d like you to mix the movie I’m working on.” I went, “Okay! What’s the movie?” He said, “It’s The Dark Knight Rises.” Of course, I messed it up completely, because I didn’t know what I was doing, but he persevered with me, which is amazing of him.
I love that you feel freedom to take it where you see it working best, as opposed to being hands-off and nervous about making any changes.
I don’t know how else to be. Hans is funny with me. Whenever we’re in meetings, the first time I meet a director or something, he’ll always make some remark like, “Oh, this is the guy who’s going to tell you how bad everything is.” That’s how he introduces me, which I never know what to make of it. What I’m saying is, if I don’t think something’s good, I’m going to tell whoever it is [my opinion], and I’m going to try and help and do something about it. Not “not good,” but if it could be better.
I think you defined a record producer right there.
I was fascinated to find out you’d built a studio in your early 20s.
Yeah, Regents Park Recording Company. I knew nil. I knew absolutely nothing. No knowledge whatsoever.
What was the process of building a studio at that point for you? Were you having to go and ask a lot of people questions and figure out what gear to get?
Yeah, that’s exactly right.
There was a limited type of gear.
It was a limit of 15,000 pounds. That was it. Only 15,000 pounds to do the building work, acoustics, and equipment. I got a cheap builder. Acoustics; there was not much I could do. I met some guy who built me a console for very little. We bought a tape machine that was useless, and very few microphones. I had one key microphone, which was a [Neumann] KM 84. And off we went. But it started doing well very quickly. Because of that we could lease a load of good gear. As all of this happened, I learned how to engineer.
Is that where you did “Driver’s Seat” for Sniff ‘n’ the Tears?
Yeah, that was very early on there.
I was probably a teenager, 16 or 17, when that was a hit. That record jumped off the radio.
I had a major breakthrough on that record; I discovered the mute button. I know that sounds strange to say, but there were two guitar players. They played their riffs all the way through the record, and I had this idea of muting the guitar when the guy sang. To me, this was revolutionary. I couldn’t believe that I could cut the guitars when he sang. What was interesting is that the riffs needed to be muted at weird points, timing-wise. Because I was primarily a musician, I could figure it out. While we were mixing, in my head I could hit the buttons at exactly the right moment and then open them up at the right moment, and that’s how we mixed it. The other big deal was – my god, I’ve never thought about that – putting a big reverb on the snare when the drums come in. I can’t remember if it was before or after Bob Clearmountain’s mix of [the Rolling Stones’] “Start Me Up.” That was the gag on “Start Me Up.”
It was before “Start Me Up”.
Was it? Oh, well there you go.
See? The less in the mix, the better everything sounds.
Yeah. I had a funny one not long ago. Ultravox got together to make an album [Brill!ant]. They asked me to produce their album. We made this really good album. I have a room at Battery Studios, and I was mixing it there. There was a song, I can’t remember the name, but it was based around Billy Currie’s beautiful keyboard part. I had the idea of muting this keyboard part when the verse happened. Everyone was into it, apart from Billy. Billy freaked out. He said, “You’re muting my keyboard part!” I replied, “Yeah, but Billy, it sounds sogreat when it comes back in!”
I had to approach it like a bit of reverse input there. Rather than saying that it sounds great when it goes out, I said it sounds great when it comes back in. He said, “Look, you’re gonna have to give me a day or two to process this one.” It worked out.
If something’s in the mix all the way through a song, the listener tunes it out.
THE PRODUCERS (TREVOR HORN, ASH SOAN, LOL CRÈME AND STEPHEN LIPSON)
Musicians always want to fill up space. They want their ideas in there all the time.
It’s funny. They want to be louder. It always amuses me. For a few years, Trevor and I had a band. In this band, we made an album, and it was fascinating, the whole dynamic of people who know what they’re doing, as anyone does. There was none of that “turn me up.” Everyone had a bit of an overview of what was happening.
Was that The Producers’ [a.k.a. The Trevor Horn Band] Made in Basing Street?
Well, they’re all supposed to be producers, so they’d better behave!
It was interesting and quite refreshing. “You don’t have to turn me up. Use it how it should be used.”
I’ve heard you say it’s very rare you pursued a project or worked on anything that you didn’t prefer to be working on. I’m finding myself dealing with this, having to say no quite a bit more often at this point in my career.
Let me ask you, do you have to work, financially?
Yes, but not constantly.
Okay, so you’re reliant on some work.
Some work, and I’m doing quite a bit of remote mixing. I’m wondering for all of us on this path, what’s the graceful way of saying no?
It’s funny how it comes quite naturally for me. If I was a young kid, I wouldn’t want to work with me. So that’s that. As far as tracking a band is concerned, I’ve gotta be honest, it doesn’t really interest me. It feels like hard work to me. I said this the other day, and I regretted saying it… I need to figure out how to couch this. But I find working with bands quite hard. I find singers easier. When I’m working with a singer, I can pick the musicians I like. The idea of tracking has, to an extent, lost its appeal to me. I know, I get the whole interactive angle; it’s a great vibe thing. I’ve been there and done it. But I enjoy the jigsaw puzzle just as much. Is it fair to say that I find it more satisfying? I find it satisfying. It’s like something out of nothing. I did a record not long ago for Mike Oldfield and we put an album together [Man on the Rocks]. We recorded a 4-piece [band], live at The Village; it was fun.
That record sounds amazing. It was not what I would expect from Mike Oldfield.
No. It was really hard to do. He lives in the Bahamas and wouldn’t come to L.A., so it was lots of screens everywhere – cameras, microphones, and speakers – so that he could give his input. We’d get in and have a song to start the morning with, and we’d all be looking for a good angle on the song. He would tune in at that point – not realizing that we were fishing – and think that we were wrecking his music. So, every day it was a little bit of, “Mike, calm down. It’ll be fine. We’re on the hunt. It’ll all be okay.” It worked out okay. But that was a band. They were really good, hand-picked guys, and I knew them all. They were friends, and it was a luxurious [session]. But with a band in a room, I don’t know. I’d find it quite challenging. For me the whole process of making something sound like a satisfying, emotional journey out of a bunch of noises is pretty gratifying for me. The other thing is, and this – apart from one or two specific examples – has never, ever been an issue or driven me, but there’s no money in making records and no sales at the end. Actually, it’s more about the acknowledgment. It’s hard to feel there’s much acknowledgment anymore for the work. Maybe if I’d made Taylor Swift’s last album, I wouldn’t be saying that. But she’s not going to ask me to make her record. [laughter]
You never know! Have you been working from home quite a bit over the last year during the pandemic?
Oh, yeah, I’ve worked from home. The studio at Battery, I can’t remember the last time I used it.
You’re keeping it and paying rent.
Yeah, yeah. But I can’t let it out at the moment, because it’s so personal. I’ve got to re-jig it. I’m a quarter of a way through that. Then I’ll let it out, maybe, to some people.
Yeah. It’s hard to set a place up for other folks to work out of and make it universal as opposed to personal, as you say.
What monitors do you have in your space at Battery?
Dynaudio M4s. My small room at home that’s nearly as good. They’re Dynaudio Core 47 7s, and I’m putting an Atmos system in.
Do you have enough room at the home setup?
I’ll make it work! It’ll be fine. I’ll put four in the ceiling.
I’ve worked on some of the large Dynaudio’s before. I didn’t have to think about them, so I knew it must have been working!
I’ve loved them since the M1 [monitors] in the ‘80s. That’s all I’ve used. I never get tired. The discrepancy between loud and quiet doesn’t bother me as much as some speakers, and it’s never piercing. But then, the room is more important and this room I’ve got sounding really good.
I just listened to the Billie Eilish track [“No Time to Die”] for the new James Bond film [No Time to Die] that you produced.
Obviously, that came through Hans and working on the score. What was the process of that? I assume Finneas O’Connell and Billie were writing and recording their parts and sending them to you?
Yeah, of course. Actually, my introduction to the Bond movie was the song. That was the first thing he asked me to do, “Would you produce the song?” As you can imagine, hundreds of people send in songs for a Bond movie.
Oh, my god. Yeah, sure.
This was on the pile; obviously extremely high up the pile. The first time I hear something, I’m not great. I can’t go, “Oh, that’s fantastic.” I’ve got to hear it a couple more times. He played me the song, and I thought, “Yeah, it’s nice.” It’s not very “Bond,” but that’s not really the point. The thing for me was that it was Billie Eilish. I thought that was a complete no-brainer. “It’s got to be this song, because it’s Billie Eilish.” The connection of Bond and Billie Eilish was brilliant. I don’t know if I had any input in it, but it was decided that that would be the song. Daniel Craig wasn’t keen on it, all the way through until the very end.
Of course, it’s his swan song, this movie. It was important that he was happy. He wasn’t happy right until I played him a mix. It half turned out to be the final mix.
Did you get any feedback of what he wasn’t feeling from it?
Yeah, completely. His feedback was that it had no climax. It involved two gags: The orchestra; I knew we’d figure the orchestra out. It was unbelievably convoluted getting the orchestra on the track for many reasons, which I won’t bore you with, but it was extremely painful. We got there in the end. We talked about how it needed a bit more of a climax, so she went up to a high note. Billie and Finneas sent me a vocal and said, “We’ve done this for the end.” I put that in, and knew it was the key moment and I could make it work. Then I got some feedback from Finneas that Billie wasn’t keen on going up to this note. Somehow, we got over that one. I had the mix ready. I managed to get Daniel to come to my studio, at Battery in London, at 8 o’clock in the morning on a Sunday. He flew in from New York and landed at seven. He had a whole load of shit that he had to get done in London, but he came straight from the studio and gave me half an hour. I got there very early, like six in the morning, and put the mix up. I had this most ridiculous idea of jacking that moment up about 8 dB so that when she hit that note, the mix went ballistic. But, of course, you can’t just do that. It had to get there.
Right. You’ve got to build to it.
You’ve got to build to it, and they can’t know it’s happening. I figured it out, got a level for the song, and sat back before he and [producer] Barbara Broccoli arrived. I sat back in the hot seat, as you do, and hit play and listened through. The speakers in my room at Battery are unbelievable. I assure you; you won’t hear a better sound than this room. I don’t say that lightly; I’ve worked in hundreds of studios. So, the song’s playing at a healthy volume. Then it hits this moment and fuck me! It pinned me. They arrive, and I say, “You’ve gotta sit here, Daniel.” I hit play, he had his head down as it finished, and Barbara Broccoli – who runs the show – she’s freaking, because she thinks it’s all over. All he said was, “Play it again.” I hit play, and it goes through again. She’s still getting the years on. Loads of the score incorporates these melodies. After the second run through he kept his head down, and then he looked at me and said, “I fucking love it!” Of course, Barbara lost ten years immediately. That was it. Done.
When I listened to it, I thought about Billie and Finneas; the way they write and the way she sings. She doesn’t usually ever go for a belting note! This isn’t Shirley Bassey.
Of course. It was hard work, but they – Finneas and Billie – are absolutely remarkable. She’s focused and has strong, good instincts. They’re lovely, lovely people.