Back in the day, when bands were in the studio, a producer and engineer would work hand in hand with the band to produce, record, and mix the new material. There were some instances where the band, or at least one of the members, was able to do this, but in most cases, it was a full team of people. In today's world, however, the roles of producer, engineer, and artist are nearly one and the same. When it comes to electronic music, this is especially the case, and for artists who still choose to work with a producer or engineer, the term "ghost producer" is probably the first thing that comes to most people's minds. Unfortunately, even when an artist is working directly with a producer to help really bring ideas to life, people assume that what's really happening is that the producer is really doing all the work. This is definitely true for some artists and is something that has and will continue to happen.
However, our guest today is here to set the record straight about what really happens in the studio. Meet Alex Tepper, an engineer for the likes of Black Sabbath and Steel Pulse at the beginning of his career, who now works with some of the biggest names in the industry including Nic Fanciulli, Nicole Moudaber and Steve Lawler to name just a few. In the interview below, we dispell the misconceptions of working with a producer, gear, and productivity.
Hi Alex. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today. There's a strong chance many of our readers are unfamiliar with you and your resume. Before we dive in, could you give us a brief description of your work and how you got involved in music?
Hello and thanks for having me. I’m a British record producer and mix engineer mostly making House and Techno. I work as a musical collaborator and producer with some well-known DJs and dance acts in those genres.
I originally got into music wanting to be a radio DJ when I was around 15 years old. There was a recording studio not far from where I grew up that specialised in radio productions – I knocked on the door one day and asked if I could help out on school holidays and weekends so I could learn the ropes. They also had a full-blown recording studio where the likes of ELO had recorded at some stage, and I found myself getting more interested in that area. I became fascinated with the computers, synthesizers, and samplers they had there, and got really into editing DJ mixes together on reel-to-reel machines.
The house we had moved into near that studio was owned (before us) by someone who was friends with Tony Prince, the founder of Disco Mix Club (DMC). I found loads of the “for DJ's Only” LP’s lying around which I loved. I think that was the start of my interest in DJ-ing and club music in general.
The artists and genres you've worked with over the years are very impressive. How and when did you make the jump to electronic music?
I was always into electronic music. As a child, I grew up being heavily influenced by pop music through the 80s so I think that was inevitable. But in my early days of sound engineering, it was more about learning the techniques of recording and sonics rather than being genre specific. You kind of take whatever work comes your way. I started off working with all sorts of bands, from rock and reggae to small orchestras and country music – enjoying it and learning a lot. I was in Birmingham at the time, which had a very strong Reggae and rock influence with the likes of Steel Pulse, UB40, Pato Banton and on the rock side, Black Sabbath, Dave Hill from Slade, and Pop Will Eat Itself. They were all based in Birmingham and used to pop in to use the recording studio I was working at on a regular basis.
But the real defining moment for me was when I started making my own records in the early ’90s, having been introduced to Acid house and Detroit techno through a local label and distributor called Network Records.
The idea that one or two people could sit in a room full of electronic equipment and program a beat and then a bass line, melodies and some samples essentially making an entire record on their own was something I quickly became obsessed with. Then it was about how to get that sounding good on a big system and seeing people dance to it. Once that happened, I was hooked!
While at first, one might find it hard to draw any connections between working in genres like heavy metal and electronic music, I'm curious if there are any surprising similarities between the two?
I think you can draw similarities between all types of music, especially where making it is concerned. There’s a process involved no matter what style and the finished record is essentially the sum of its combined parts. All music needs to tell a story. It needs to have a beginning, middle, and end.
Originally a lot of the music coming out of Ibiza in the mid-80s was called Balearic Beat. There’s a sort of attitude to this sound that can link very different styles and genres of music. It’s when the emotion it gives you can come from a hypnotic song structure and/or rhythm and melodies. It can make something like Toto “Africa” sit next to Kraftwerk, Sade, Detroit Techno, House, Vangelis and so on... It’s the same as Massive Attack or Mantronix sampling a Billy Cobham psychedelic jazz record and making a hip-hop record out of it…there are always connections and similarities when you search.
What does your studio setup look like, and what are some of your go-to tools? Any recent additions you're really enjoying?
I like being surrounded by analogue and outboard equipment and I use my computer as a sort of fancy tape machine, Ableton Live or Pro-Tools being the tape. I still use my old Akai’s a lot, S950 (modded), S3000XL, and MPC2000XL (modded). In the last couple of years, I’ve been getting into Eurorack and have a small modular system I’ve put together which gets used on everything I do! Also my old Korg MS20, Prophet 6, Moog Voyager & DFAM.
For me, these machines have a character that I find difficult to replicate with software. Every time I switch the Korg MS20 on for an example and play a note it’s like you’re actually hearing the sound of electricity, with variances and imperfections, which make it unique and slightly unpredictable. It’s very difficult to have plug-ins do that and I find the hands-on approach a lot more fun. Software definitely has a place in my studio though – Reaktor, Ableton, and Max For Live for example – software that brings something new to the process and isn’t just trying to replicate analogue.
There are many misconceptions to your line of work, with the term ghost producer being perhaps incorrectly used. What is one key thing you'd like people to know about what it is you actually do?
Yes, sadly that’s what an awful lot of people assume goes on in a DJ/Producer relationship. I have my theories on how it got to be that way but I don’t want to point fingers here. It’s an unfortunate fact that whenever I tell anyone what I do they almost always reply “so basically you do all the work” and it couldn’t be further from the truth.
I am a producer and I work with the artist in a very similar way to how traditional producers do – Nigel Godrich & Radiohead, Brian Eno & Talking Heads for example. There are countless other examples across every other genre – it’s just that in this case the artist and performer is a DJ or dance act instead of a band or singer. Instead of playing an instrument, for example, their talent is knowing what works on the dance floor and being able to bring that back into the music with their own ideas and experiences. It’s very much a collaborative process. The end product is the artist’s vision and I’m there to make it happen in the most professional way I can.
The DJs and dance acts I work with are passionate about the music they play in their sets and the music they make. We both are and that’s why it works. You can’t say the same is true for ghost producing; that’s just music for cash and there’s a big difference – ghost production is soulless, there’s no involvement from the artist and the only motivation is money, on both sides.
When you're working with an artist, how often do you walk away from a session with ideas for your own music?
I tend to put all my energy into the session I’m working on that day. When an idea comes it would probably be based on what we’re working on, whom I’m working with and if it’s good enough it will go into whatever it is we’re working on at that point. I never keep anything back for myself. There are sometimes methods I stumble on and I’ll think to myself – wow, I have to do that again, that really worked!
But If anything, when I stop to think about what music I would make on my own project it’s usually thinking of something totally different, maybe something slower and a more experimental maybe with no or fewer beats and more textures.
For example, I have a project with a producer friend of mine as Apiento & Tepper and we are doing some pretty spaced out, dubby, experimental house and breaks. We usually get together one evening a week and treat it a bit like a social occasion as much as a sort of electronic jam session. It’s a lot of fun, all the analogue equipment gets sonically abused on these sessions…trying to push things to their limits and seeing what sticks.
My method of working is kind of just that; very ‘in the moment’. I like to jam around using synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines and almost let the machines come up with the ideas and then choose which bits work and which don’t.
Also, I'm curious as to how you draw the line between suggestions and making sure to not to inject too much of yourself into your clients work?
We sit and decide together what works, what goes in and what doesn’t. I’m very careful to listen to whomever I’m sitting with and when they say they don’t like something or do like something we will go that way or at least discuss it. We also discuss in depth at the start of the session where they want to go, direction wise. We also listen to some other music that they’re playing in their sets that’s relevant.
They are the artist – I can’t stress this enough. I think that any record producer, no matter what genre, will tell you that it’s all about what will work for the artist (or at least they should do). Of course, artists come to me for a reason and so my opinions do matter to them, but ultimately they have to feel good about it themselves, playing it live and in their sets. It’s important that I respect that and try and make that happen for them – not get bogged down with what I would do if it were my own record.
In 25 years in this business, this is what I’ve learned being a good record producer is all about. It’s the ability to facilitate the ideas and requirements of the artist while making sure it gets done to the highest standard possible using my experience and skills in the studio.
When you find yourself overwhelmed or unfocused, but have a ton of work to do that must get done, how do you re-center yourself and get back in the game?
I find getting out of the studio to grab a coffee or a bite can work very well. Taking breaks to clear your head. It’s amazing how much perspective you can gain back on a track if you take yourself away from it for even just 10-15 minutes.
Or I might try something drastically different on it, a new method I’ve never tried before, something I might think could never work.
Surprises and “happy accidents” are the best thing ever in the studio and can totally re-invigorate your enthusiasm for what you’re working on.
I find the pressure that comes from working with someone else in the room helps as well, it’s very easy to get sidetracked when you’re on your own but when I’m with an artist I can stay much more focused as there’s a sort of obligation you have to each other to get the job done. Pressure and deadlines can be a good thing.
Finally, in all of your experience in all the different roles you've played, what would you say is the single most important piece of advice you could give a new producer or artist who's just entering the game?
Try to find your sound and master it. Make it yours and then consistency is key. I’ve seen it over and over again with the most successful dance acts. They do what they do better than anyone else because it’s theirs. They make it belong to them even if it’s based on something that’s not truly original in the first place. Your stamp will shine through!