Stephen W Tayler interview (by Jim Christopulos)

Stephen W Tayler has an incredible history in the recording industry. Starting his career at Trident Studios in 1974, he's since worked with many heavy hitters (Rush, Peter Gabriel, Howard Jones, Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush, Rupert Hines, Tina Turner, etc) as a mixer, recording engineer, and producer. SWT has done the new stereo mixes and 5.1 mixes of four classic albums in the upcoming box set Van der Graaf Generator: The Charisma Years 1970 - 1978. I got a chance to ask him a few questions about the project and he was nice enough to answer them in great detail. So, thanks to SWT!

JC: You have an amazing pedigree, working with everyone from Peter Gabriel to Kate Bush, Tina Turner to Stevie Nicks, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. I know you got your start at Trident Studios in '74. Trident obviously has a major role to play in the VdGG story, it's where their first four albums were recorded with John Anthony in the producer's role. By '74, when you started working at Trident, VdGG's days recording there were in the distant past but I believe John Anthony may have still been there. Did you work with him at all or know him at the time? Did your familiarity with how Trident and John operated give you a greater understanding of the early VdGG Trident albums when you went to remix them (or did that not really play into it)?

SWT: I have been blessed to have been involved with so many fascinating and eclectic artists, right from the start. During my first couple of weeks as a teaboy at Trident I brought trays of tea to some iconic mix sessions for Queen (Killer Queen), Supertramp (Bloody Well Right) and Ace (How Long). Ace were produced by John Anthony. I didn't really work with him or get to know him that well, but I did end up programming the synthesiser for one of his later mix sessions. I also remember meeting Peter Hammill and David Jackson with Anthony at a mix session when I was a tape-op which must have been for one of Peter's solo albums.

The legacy of techniques that were created by the Trident engineers such as Robin Geoffrey Cable and Ken Scott were handed down and further developed through the house engineers. Although they had moved on by the time I started in 1974, many of their innovative techniques had become part of the Trident sound and identity. The staff engineers were moving on to become independent producers, and so the promotion ladder was moving really fast - I was lucky when I started in the recording business!

When I received the multitrack transfers of the Trident sessions I instantly understood what had been done in the recordings. More importantly when I listened to the original mixes I recognised a lot of the particular treatments that had been used in the mix, and as you can imagine there were a lot of them.

JC: In the 70s, were you a fan of VdGG, were you familiar with their music? If so, how did you first get into them, how did you discover them?

SWT: I was already well into Pink Floyd and Soft Machine and The Nice, and when I started to listen to John Peel on Radio One I heard ELP, King Crimson and VdGG among many others. In the early 70's my collection included Yes, Genesis, Greenslade, PFM, Camel, so I was obviously well into the genre. I was a music student and also had played in a couple of bands, one of which featured a Hammond player, female vocalist, drummer, electric clarinettist, and myself on bass and occasional 2nd electric clarinet. VdGG's lineup, arrangements and sound were particularly fascinating to me, not to mention their astonishing music.

JC: Did you ever see them live? (Any memories of particular gigs if you did?)

SWT: Sadly never saw them live in the early 70s, and once I started in the recording industry I almost never got a chance to go to any live shows, I was always working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week!!

JC: How did you come to be involved with the latest box set project where you've created new stereo mixes and 5.1 mixes for several of the classic albums? How excited were you at the opportunity? Had you ever met the band before this?

SWT: I have been working for a few years with Mark Powell who coordinated and curated the back catalogue for Be-Bop Deluxe and asked me to do surround and new stereo versions of their albums. This was the first time I had been asked to do something like this, as my entire career has mainly been devoted to recording and mixing new projects for artists. Since 2002 I have been mixing some surround works for various projects, but there was not really much of a market for such things, at least not until the re-issue special edition concept came to light. I had been trying to convince several artists/bands to consider mixing previous classic albums in surround since the mid 2000s, but nobody seemed interested. These days however there is a lot of interest.

Mark approached me about doing these four VdGG albums just as we hit the lockdown. I was really excited to have been asked, as these albums were so groundbreaking in their compositions, arrangements, sounds and performances, and having been a fan and also the connection with Trident. I just shut myself away and got totally involved.

I hadn't actually met the band, in fact I didn't meet them at all during the mixing, it was all done remotely. I did finally meet Guy after the mixes were complete. Still yet to meet Hugh and Peter!!

JC: You've done remixes of four classic albums (H to He, Who Am The Only One; Pawn Hearts; Godbluff; Still Life). Many of us have loved these recordings for several decades and they've achieved legendary status. What's it like delving into the original tapes and discovering things (isolated tracks; old takes that weren't used; etc) you'd never heard before? I'd almost feel like I was a sort of archeologist discovering some lost holy grail or something (!) but I'm probably being a bit melodramatic, lol.

SWT: The two Trident/Anthony albums were quite complex, while the two later Rockfield/Pat Moran recordings were simpler and more straightforward. However when you consider the first two were recorded to 16 track tape, there is a very committed and disciplined approach required due to the limited number of tracks, not to mention the cost of the tape. So there were not really any alternative tracks, and almost everything on there was used. Occasionally there were parts that were not really audible in the original mix that were interesting to expose, but that is often to do with how it is mixed. There were very few alternative takes of any sections, as I mentioned the cost of tape was a big issue. There were a couple of pieces for H to He and Pawn Hearts, but on the Godbluff and Still Life multitracks there were no outtakes, and they were on 24 track by then.

JC: How involved was the band in the remixes/5.1 remixes, if at all? I think I read that only Hugh helped out. Is that true and, if so, in what capacity was HB involved?

SWT: I did all the mixing in complete isolation. I made a draft of each album in turn, both in stereo and surround, and then first checked them with Mark Powell before sending the stereo versions out to Hugh, Peter and Guy. It is usually best for me to have any reactions coordinated by one person, so Hugh gathered any notes from Peter and Guy and sent me the list. Peter and Guy only had a few comments, Hugh's list was a bit more detailed, but they were generally notes about slight level or sonic adjustments, and the odd edit. It really was an easy process. I would make changes and send the updates, maybe then a couple more exchanges, but it all happened very smoothly.

This was all achieved with the stereo mix. I don't think anyone but Mark heard the 5.1 until it was complete, and then only Hugh has a surround system. At that stage I got to meet Guy who was nominated to come and listen at our studio at Real World. It was so lovely to meet him, and he had the task of sitting through all four surround albums in a row! But his reaction was fantastic, he said it was like hearing the albums for the first time, but without the stress and pressure they must have felt as young musicians at the time. It was a very special day for me.

JC: I heard the "Pilgrims" track and it's fantastic. There are definitely things I heard that I don't *think* were on the original track, i.e. little horn lines here and there that were unfamiliar to me, and an echoing repeat of certain sung Hammill lines… For some, the original tracks are almost "sacred" yet it's fascinating to hear something different with these tunes. How do you walk the fine tightrope between respecting the original recordings (where certain takes were chosen for a reason) and using newly discovered alternative takes of a Hugh, Guy, David, or Peter perf (if that is, indeed, something that was done)? And the mix itself… it sounds like the saxes are brought more to the fore on "Pilgrims," especially in the ending section, moreso than they were on the original recording. How do you respect the original yet add something new, is that a concern?

SWT: I start work on these mixes by trying to match the original at first in headphones, in order to identify the parts and their relevance, position, sound and space in the overall picture along with effects and fader movements. Especially with iconic albums such as these it is important for me to respect the original. However I reach a point where I stop making comparisons.

At this stage the most important thing about the whole process, and the point of remixing it, is to make the surround version as that had never been done previously. The new stereo mix in my mind is almost a bonus or byproduct of the surround version. Here starts the debate about the whole point of new mixes. Should they be almost identical to the original but just enhanced, or should it be a radical 'remix'? (And don't get me started on what the word 'remix' means!!!)

As I say, my goal is to interpret the original in surround, respecting the original but allowing for some special moments, and if this results in an alternative new mix that might be appreciated by some people, then that is great. But it is never about trying to improve the original. That is more what the remastering is trying to achieve, but that can be another can of worms! The originals still exist!!

I hear some things in the original mixes that sound like they were done under pressure as mixing was done in real time straight to tape, all hands on deck. There was no automation or undo button! Occasionally a word or a part can be unintentionally lost in the mix.

This kind of music and sound really lends itself to the experience of surround sound, but I also hope the stereo mix will be captivating in headphones.

JC: For a feature in Prog magazine that I think covered the year 1971, Steven Wilson was quoted as saying that the one album he'd like to get his hands on (presumably for the 5.1 treatment he's known for) is Pawn Hearts, stating that that album seems so otherworldly. It didn't happen for him but it did for you. What was it like working on that album, getting to dive into the original tracks, as it does seem to have come from another planet! I'm guessing that working on "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" alone would probably make a long, fascinating article if you cared to write it!

SWT: This kind of concept work is right up my street, absolutely other-worldly! In particular 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers' and 'Pioneers Over C ' from 'H to He' were made out of multiple parts. These were all recorded on separate tapes in short sections, and would have been originally mixed to stereo separately and then edited and crossfaded together using two tape machines for playback and another one to record the combined result. When they did this they had to commit to each part one by one, so it was never easy to hear the whole piece in context until it was finally assembled. Sometimes that might create unevenness in the flow. What is exciting these days is that you can combine all these parts together in one session file and have an overview of the entire piece.

It was sometimes fascinating to try and understand how to put the jigsaw together. At one point in 'Pioneers' I was under the impression that a whole section was missing when it came to putting it together. After a while and more investigation I realised that they had used the same section, but mixed two times, with a different vocal and mix. When they had recorded the vocal for the second instance of the section, they must have already mixed the first part, because there were some missing lines on the lead vocal where they must have used that track for something for the second time, if you get my drift.

This is where some of the modern technology allowed me to extract the missing vocal lines from another source - but that could lead to a whole other article!!

Needless to say modern digital techniques allow you to recreate a lot of the original analog processing and effects really successfully, as well as being able to restore or correct any technical issues.

JC: When delving into the multi-tracks for H to He and Pawn Hearts, were there any Fripp parts that weren't used the first time around? Will we hear those when the box is released?

SWT: It's possible that there might be the odd incidental part that might have not been heard before.

JC: I know Guy has mentioned in the press that some of the drum tracks are a revelation to him, the way you've brought certain things out (like a splash cymbal, etc) in a way that wasn't heard before (I think he was referring to stuff on Godbluff). The whole band seems to have given the project the thumbs up. Soon, we'll all be able to hear the fruits of your labor. How gratifying was it to get the band's approval, and what would you like to say to the band's thousands of fans who will be hearing all of this in a couple months' time?

SWT: I was so delighted with the reaction from the band. I have to say that the recordings were astonishing, especially the drums which were mostly recorded on two or three tracks at the most. That is partly down to expert recording straight to tape, great drums and microphones. It also shines a light on the technique of such an amazing player, where the relationship between the drums and the cymbals are so finely balanced, a bit like a conductor balancing the instruments in an orchestra.

Occasionally it is possible using various traditional but also modern techniques to get the most out of such sounds to further enhance the result. I must say I used some of my Trident techniques on some of the Rockfield tapes!

It has been the greatest pleasure and privilege to work on these albums, especially having been a fan at the time they were released, and they are such lovely chaps to work with.

I hope everyone gets something from these new mixes. I have tried to respect the originals while making it worthwhile to have a fresh listening experience. I still get emotional when I have a good loud playback. These are some of my favourite records ever.

Jim Christopulos, 8th July 2021.