Stuart Epps – Forty Years of Golden Ears

by | Oct 1, 2010


Acclaimed record producer and studio engineer recalls how an aspiring young composer named Reg Dwight crushed his dreams of being a songwriter in seconds. Paul Watson is ready with the Kleenex.

After what Epps describes as “a mad beginning in life” developing a passion for singing at just three years old and listening intently with his father to the first broadcast of Journey Into Stereo Sound – the first stereophonic record (of which he still owns a copy) at the age of six, he feels that it was inevitable that he would end up in the music business.

“I was hearing sounds for the first time and it just got my imagination going,” Epps explains. “By the time I was nine years old, I was experimenting with microphones and my Dad’s tape machine; I grew up not only loving music and playing records, but recording sounds as well – which to me was just magical.”

Stuart Epps ‘official’ career in music began in 1967 at Dick James Music (DJM) on New Oxford Street. Aged only 15 at the time, he’d been persuaded by his friend Clive Franks, who was the record cutter at DJM at the time, to leave school and apply to be a runner. After getting the job, he found himself smack in the middle of the industry at one of its most exciting times. After getting a foot in the door, Epps eventually climbed what he calls “the DJM hierarchy” and began engineering his first records.

One of the aspiring writers at the time was 19-year-old Reg Dwight, who Epps describes as “a pretty strange guy with crazy hair who wore Noddy T-shirts”. “I just took to him straight away. We never called him Elton [John] – it was always Reg; and when he first sat down and played us a song, I had never heard anything like it,” he explains. “At the time I thought I could write songs, but after that I changed my direction there and then.”

Epps began working in the demo studio at DJM and in a short time had learned everything about it. At 18 years old, he found himself producing his first record with a band called Birds of a Feather, which he did at Trident Studios, with Elton John as the session pianist and Rick Wakeman on the keyboards.

Although it was a successful project, Epps was still interested in the business side of the industry and became Elton John’s PA, thrown in at the deep end of a three month American tour. After that, everything began to change; Elton’s next record, Elton John (The Black Album), was his ‘big one’ featuring huge orchestral numbers Your Song and Sixty Years On. This project saw Epps take on a project management role away from the console and work closely with now legendary Producer Gus Dudgeon – again at Trident Studios.

Epps describes Elton John (The Black Album) as the turning point in his career, because being involved – albeit co-ordinating and not mixing – reminded him that he wanted to get back behind the desk. He had formed a close friendship with Dudgeon and Elton and by 1974 was involved in Dudgeon’s vision in building the ultimate recording studio.

That vision spawned The Mill in Cookham, where he became Dudgeon’s (and Elton’s) chief engineer. “It took two years to build the studio and Gus [Dudgeon] partly designed its 42-Channel MCI desk himself,” says Epps. “There was no such thing as nearfield monitors; we’d use little 5″ transistor speakers that were on the old tape machines and there was no mid-way between the big ones and those.”

In 1978, Elton returned from a trip to New York with a pair of Auratone speakers. Epps says they sounded horrible, but because they could take a lot of level, began popping up in every studio around the world. “They had no high end, no low end – just a transistor type sound,” says Epps, “but they did catch on long before the [Yamaha] NS10s; I still use the NS10s today as reference monitors.”

The main monitors at The Mill were off-the-shelf JBL LE15Bs, which were powered by Crown DC300 amplifiers. The minute they were wired in, it was deduced that they weren’t loud enough, so another set of LE15Bs was acquired resulting in a custom JBL monitoring system. “We created these monitors built with two bass drivers in each side which at the time was pretty unique. We biamped and triamped the speakers, and then we turned it on and it was fucking loud,” reveals Epps. “Originally, the monitoring was going to be built for Quad, so we also had two at the back, but Quad didn’t take off so we were left with this massive monitoring from the front instead.”

The Mill had four Echo Plates, digital delay lines, the first AMS digital reverb, and an Eventide Harmoniser – made famous by Hendrix in his early records. The Mill was used to record a host of Elton John albums and new artists of the day including Chris Rea and Lindisfarne. Today, Epps works from a modest home studio set-up, but manages to achieve master quality recordings with limited resources. He puts this down to the lessons he learned at both DJM and The Mill.

Epps works from Cool Edit Pro with just a stereo digital interface. His monitoring system consists of two large – and very loud – Tannoy speakers set in Lockwood cabinets and a pair of Yamaha NS10s. “Cool Edit Pro is just like a multi-track recorder. It does have facilities and I do use the effects, though they’re not nearly as advanced as Pro Tools – but I kind of like that,” says Epps. “I have my ear on the way I used to record analogue, and funnily enough I find that my recordings keep that feel; I don’t mind if there’s too much level – distortion can sound quite nice actually. My focus is on how it would be if I had the big studio with all the gear.”

The main vocal mic Epps uses is a fairly battered AKG C414 which has had the likes of Bill Wyman, Georgie Fame and Gary Brooker singing (and blowing smoke) through it; Epps absolutely swears by it. “I have used loads of other mics – some incredible ones. But, I don’t know, they all seemed to lack the warmth of this 414,” he insists. When recording vocals, Epps explains that he doesn’t tend to use any compression going in – which he admits “is a bit mad”; a DBX 160 is his modern day weapon of choice post-recording, though in the old days, he’d be clambering over a bunch of Fairchild valve compressors.

He will often use up to 20 tracks for vocals and then compile them – a technique he learned from Dudgeon; the idea being that every word of the vocal is the best it can possibly be. “If it’s a good quality vocalist, then using the 414 straight onto the digital interface isn’t a big problem. I record it flat and afterwards when it’s all compiled, I EQ it, compress it and all the rest of it,” he explains. “The main thing is getting the performance and making it all happen; I like quite heavy compression post-performance.”

One of the challenges he faces in his current working environment is recording drums. He has, however, come up with a solution – in the shape of a self-crafted wooden annex. According to Epps, wood is a good start in accommodating any drum kit because it’s not entirely unreflective and it’s what drum boxes are made out of after all. He believes it allows for a slightly more natural sound, preferring it to a totally dead space. Epps chooses not to use gates on the drums and won’t compress anything going in if he can avoid it.

His mic set-up consists of an AKG D112 in the kick, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, a Shure SM57 on the snare and a pair of Neumanns for the overheads. Epps explains that his first attempts at recording in the annex were fairly arduous to say the least. “I literally put a digital multi-track in the drum room, recorded the drums onto that, then bounced each track at a time back onto the computer – a hell of a task – but it did work,” he says, “The next time, I thought ‘this is ridiculous’ so I decided to record them stereo – which was taking a bit of a risk, but that’s what I did; I put a little mixer out there, plugged all of the microphones into the mixer, and then took two tracks out of there into my stereo interface.”

When recording acoustic and electric guitars, Epps uses his trusty AKG C414; either on the sound box or on the amplifier. He firmly believes though that without a quality instrument and performance, there’s no point turning up. Considering the significant downsize in space and equipment, listening to Epps recordings was remarkably eye-opening.

He says he misses the “seat of the pants mixing” that he was so used to on the MCI console, but that grass roots recording methods like these have made him open his mind to the music a little more. “When everything was on tap, I did used to get carried away. I listen back to some recordings from years ago and often wish I hadn’t put so much effect on a certain sound,” Epps explains, “whereas here, I find that with less equipment the sound comes out a little bit better and less messed with; so maybe in some ways that’s a good thing.” “I used to think it was the magic of the studio when we were in The Mill, but the truth of it is you can make magic in any room with minimal equipment if the music’s great; and the key is to bring the professionalism to the room; ‘This isn’t a bedroom or a living room, this is a fucking studio!’ you’ve got to think in that way or it won’t happen.”