LONG READ: AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPH MARZIANO
By Naomi Jackson. Interview conducted by Francine Perry.
If you don’t know Steph Marziano by name, you almost certainly know her work. From assisting on albums ranging from Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool to FKA Twigs’ EP3, to entirely producing Denai Moore’s new album (coming out later this year), to working on Kasabian’s most recent single “You’re in Love with a Psycho”, the breadth of her work is astonishing. Originally from the States and beginning her musical life as a drummer, Steph made the move to the UK to study Sound Technology at LIPA before securing herself a run of internships and ultimately moving to London to find work. We meet up with her in the bar at Strongroom Studios where she works, before she flies out to Austin to run mentoring sessions at SXSW.
So, you work at Strongroom and you work at RAK?
Yeah, so I’m freelance. After I left my first studio I became freelance, mostly worked at Strongroom for like… three years? Strongroom and RAK are both run by women, which is wicked. They’re super keen to have female engineers and assistants, so it’s such a lovely environment to work in. I mean, they put you through your paces with intense sessions but it’s great. I don’t assist anymore, I just engineer and produce but I still work out of Strongroom, bringing bands in or sometimes I get called to engineer session if they don’t have an engineer. Same with RAK — I’ve got an engineering session there next week. RAK’s in St John’s Wood, it’s wicked. They’re kind of complete opposites — you know, Shoreditch vs St John’s Wood, which is really great. I love splitting my time between both places.
What’s the difference in vibe between the studios?
So Strongroom has got hippy stuff everywhere, and its also not very ‘studioy’. Like, every other studio is obviously just like plain white and stuff like that, but Strongroom has kind of gone for the opposite. RAK is like, a proper old-school studio. It looks and feels like you’re in the ’70s, but that in itself creates an amazing vibe. You can just see how much history and how many amazing albums have been done there and you feel it. So yeah, they both have their plusses.
How would you go about getting Assistant positions? Just email in?
Yeah. It kind of depends what level you’re at, because I think there’s loads of different levels of assisting? I don’t think people really realise. I mean there’s like everything from manning pro-tools to engineering properly (and not getting the credit for it)… I think if you’re going for your first assisting job, where you’ve never properly assisted before, it’s a case of just emailing and being super keen. Even if you’ve got a degree, studios don’t really care. I did a panel recently and this guy was like ‘I’ve just graduated with my masters in music tech, and I’m struggling to find jobs at studios. Should I be sending them my work?’ and I was like ‘no. Honestly, studios don’t give a s*** about it, they’re not gonna listen’. I mean, if you ever tell a studio you’re a producer or an engineer when going for an assistant engineer job, they’ll just write you off. They’ll be like, ‘why are you looking for this job if you’re already doing it’, if that makes sense? So, you’ve just got to be really humble. Never say you’re a producer, because why would they hire you when they don’t need producers? If they need assistants, they won’t hire a producer. As well, if you haven’t produced an album that has your name on it properly, then how are they supposed to know you’re a producer? I remember there was a guy at Strongroom for work experience and at the end of it he gave his CV out to a bunch of the production rooms and some of the producers there have done huge albums — like Coldplay, Depeche Mode — huge albums. He gave them his CV and in it he’d be like, ‘I’m a producer’ and he’s an eighteen-year-old kid. They were like, ‘why would I need your CV if you were a producer?’ I think just say you’ve graduated with a tech degree and want to get into assisting, you can make a good cup of tea, you’re willing to work hard and that’s what will get you the job. Not being like, ‘I’ve produced all these bands!’ I don’t think many people know that.
I think the word ‘producer’ can now mean something else these days.
Yeah, the term producer doesn’t always mean the same thing. Some producers, I’d say, are programmers. I think if you’re applying to a studio, and you’re that sort of producer, they’re not gonna think you’re a ‘producer’.
And some are a bit more like composers.
Yeah, exactly — you’re an arranger and a programmer. I just think its ‘cool’ to say you’re a producer, so over the years it’s been morphed to what it is now. ’Cause I think now, you can be an engineer, producer and mixer or an arranger and programmer and people still call themselves the same thing. But it’s always a conversation. I know some producers get annoyed about it and say people aren’t really producers… But I think in today’s world, the definition of a producer has evolved. It can mean numerous jobs, which sometimes makes it confusing!
So when did you start calling yourself a producer?
I guess when I produced things that came out, or when I signed my name to them. I didn’t really say it until recently, it was only the last year and half that I was like, cool I can start saying it (laughs). It’s cool, ’cause you’re like, ‘I’m doing it!’, but you have to be careful saying it — I know that sounds mad! It’s also really different producing your own music to producing someone else’s. I always think if you’ve produced other people’s stuff, then you can call yourself a producer. If people are starting out and saying they’re producing, you just have to be really careful about it. Like you’re not gonna get very far, you just have to be super humble. There’s so many people going for studio jobs, and the best advice is just to work hard and do whatever it takes as opposed to claiming you’ve produced loads of records.
What’s the basic assisting role?
So there’s like a runner, which doesn’t really exist anymore, but they get the food and drinks and help assist a bit later maybe. It ranges from that to the engineer sending you the mic list and you setting everything up so it’s all ready when they walk in. It means you do, like, three hours work in the early morning. They’ll give you a spreadsheet most of the time, and you just set the whole thing up and when they get there, they’ll tweak it. Also a lot of the time, it’s your job to show an engineer who maybe hasn’t been to the studio before where everything is — you’re expected to know the studio and the room and the gear all inside out. Like for example they don’t know where all the stuff is in the patch bay, and you do. It’s quite technical, in many ways assisting is more technical than engineering. Then it gets to the point when you’re running Pro Tools, and then you’re practically there.
If you’re running Pro Tools are you slightly higher up than assistant engineering?
Yeah. But sometimes they don’t have the budget so it’s kind of all mapped under the same thing. But you have to be so quick on Pro Tools. I remember an engineer once telling me that if you can’t do it in ten seconds, don’t do it (laughs). But, it’s so true.
Is it always Pro Tools?
I saw you did the DICE Girls Music Day, how important do you think events like that are?
I think its brilliant. When I was growing up I didn’t have that — in the sense of women doing it, I didn’t really have that. I remember going to an AES Conference with my mom when I was 16. She took me to New York and I was so excited! I was gonna go and learn about all this gear, and my mom turned to me and went, “Oh my God, Steph. You’re entering a man’s world.” It was all men. White, middle-class men. Just all these men.
I think days like that are so important. I still did it without having anything like that, and I was a tomboy and stuff so I never really noticed that there weren’t any women but I think now that I’m one of the women there, there aren’t many women for me to look up to. I’d love for the younger generation to be like ‘ah I wanna be a record producer, I wanna be a sound-engineer’ and Google it and have as many women come up as men. You know, you could just walk into a studio and not be surprised that there’s a woman behind the desk. I’d love that, and I hope events like DICE Girls and Red Bull’s ‘Norman Not Novelty’ series really help to change things.
I think people this year, and the last couple of years, have really started to notice the gap.
Yeah! A friend of mine has just started this thing, sort of like a website-directory thing of all the women producers and engineers. So if A&R are like, ‘I’ve just signed this girl, she’s sixteen, I don’t really want her in a room with two thirty-year-old men, let’s see who’s available’.
I speak to loads of bands who say they’d love a female producer, but they just don’t know any.
Exactly. And hopefully there’d be a point where you don’t need that website anymore. I’d love it if we didn’t have to have that website, but it seems we do (laughs). I don’t necessarily like being ‘I’m a FEMALE producer’, I’d rather it was ‘I’m a GOOD producer’.
How has it been different do you think, being a woman? Was it harder being an assistant?
It’s weird, because sometimes it’s much harder but then sometimes it gives you a bit of an advantage. One advantage is that nine times out of ten, people remembered my name more so then they’d remember the guy assistant’s name, because they always have a guy assistant. So I’d make good relationships a bit quicker with bands, and I found that I was getting put on more sessions because I was friendlier with the bands and we had a good rapport. Not that I think that’s just because I’m a woman, I think that’s just because we got on. Then they’d either ask for me or the management would see we were friendly, and ask for me. But then, there has been times where people don’t think you’re the assistant engineer and just think you’re the receptionist — that happened to me a few times. One time this older producer introduced me to someone and he was like ‘this is Steph, and she knows Pro Tools!’ That sort of thing happened all the time when that band was in the studio. Over all the years they’d recorded they’d never had a woman studio engineer — I was the first one. I don’t think he meant it in a bad way, he was just like, ‘this is GREAT! I’ve never seen it!’ and it was kind of sweet. You find you get a lot of technical questions to like, prove yourself that a guy wouldn’t get. But I’d say for the most part I’ve had positive experiences. One negative experience was with this “dad-rock” band. It wasn’t even a session I was enjoying doing…but anyway, the bassist said, ‘Our producer says you’re really good! and I said, what? The woman?!’ But he didn’t laugh. It was just a statement.
I almost didn’t want to ask you what it’s like being a female producer because you must have to deal with it all the time.
Yeah, but you have to be like that because then hopefully the younger generation don’t have to do that. I’ve got a manager, and she says ‘I don’t pitch you as a female producer, I pitch you as a producer and it comes up that you’re female’ — and I think that’s the best way to do it. You can’t always get that balance right, and I don’t even know what the balance is — it’s on the line.
I know a lot of what people find hard is confidence — like when you get the tech questions fired at you, to reply with confidence.
Yeah. When I was first assisting, there was this engineer and he’d just moved up from assistant to engineer and I assisted for him. I was really shy at the time like, when someone would ask if I could do something and he’d be like, ‘you’re really good, but you need to be more confident and just start blagging it ’cause you’ll learn how to do it.’ That was kind of a tipping point for me and I was like f*** it! I can do this! I mean, that’s how guys are — guys are super confident. Some people are a bit put off when a woman does it, but you have to be like that. Another tipping point for me was when I assisted on the Prodigy album. It was so intense — 3 months, 7 days a week, 20 hour days.
Is that normal? That you’d be working 7 days a week?
Sometimes, yes. Hopefully it’s like 6 days, but this sessions was particularly intense — it was full-on. I lost my head a bit at some points. We all did really. They’d already gone through one assistant before getting me, so I came in as the second choice and had to prove myself to a room of sceptics. At the time, he was the favourite assistant and he was getting most of the sessions. I remember being a bit jealous. So anyways, I was on the session and the producer was like, ‘listen, so people are gonna be extra tough on you ’cause you’re a woman and they’re gonna be sh** to you so I’m going to make sure you know your sh**’. So he worked with me every day and sometimes, you know, treated me pretty f***ing harshly, but with the idea that I was gonna leave there so confident and really know my sh** and not take anything from anyone. That was the greatest thing he could have done.
Did it work?
Yeah, definitely. Even though I’d like, cry on the phone to my parents about it, it was true. I left that being like, I handled that for three months — throw whatever you want at me, I can deal with it.
Do you find that, as a personality type, you have to harden yourself?
Yeah, definitely. I hate saying that you have to, but you definitely do. You can’t be soft. That sounds so bad! (laughs) It’s a cut-throat industry, particularly when you’re trying to work with the bigger guys. You know, labels and managers are all cut-throat and try and make you do stuff for free — you have to be like, no! I’m worth it and be really confident, which is difficult. Women are always taught (mimics) ‘oh, just be tame and friendly’. F*** that. You can do what you want. So yeah, I think you have to be a bit forceful, I guess.
So what’s your longest day, normally?
As an assistant, you’re always there 2 hours before and 2 hours after the engineer, so you have much longer days than engineers. My longest day was 40 hours (laughs) but that was mad. I’ve done a couple of those, where you just have to keep going. Your average day is like 17 hours, I guess? But then sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s 12, sometimes if the producer doesn’t want to be there that long it’s 8. I always kind of expect it’s going to be 14–16 hours. It means you have no social life (laughs).
Reversal of The Muse were talking about this — the long hours and how perhaps that could be harder for women if they wanted to have a family.
I love Reversal of the Muse, especially the Catherine Marks one. That was great because they spoke about things like relationships and how hard it is, and how maybe that’s why women don’t do it because it’s so hard that way. One of my friends — she’s a brilliant producer and engineer — she’s just had a baby, and she’s properly doing it. She’s like ‘I’m gonna show people you can do this and have a kid’. She’s amazing. She’s working hard and has the kid, and she’s the first person I’ve seen really do that. It’s difficult.
Do you think most women stop working?
I haven’t actually met many that have children, you know. I think it’s a bit easier for guys, though. A lot of the big shot producer guys that have kids have the mom to look after them when they’re away doing albums for two months. I personally don’t think I’m going to have kids. My boyfriend is a musician anyway, so neither of us would have time. I can’t really imagine having time to do it, I just really like what I do.
So, the Denai Moore album that you worked on isn’t out yet. You produced, programmed, engineered and mixed it, what’s it like to have that much creative input over a body of work?
It was amazing. It was my first big label album production, so it was really exciting. They kind of took a chance on me. It was great. Me and Denai have become best mates from it. It was brilliant — just artists in a room being really creative and trying out loads of crazy ideas and there was no barriers. It was just us two in the room for most of the time, so we just felt like we could be ourselves. Her A&R is amazing woman, she’s like pioneering woman in A&R — she’s awesome. But she’d come in and we were saying how we finally felt we could all be really… honest with each other? There was none of that male ego asking you to change things. It was absolutely brilliant. So we rented a room at Strongroom and did it mostly there, but then we recorded strings and choir at RAK. It was great ’cause we were saving budget by renting a room, but then we could have the big expensive studios for big stuff. Some of the ideas came out of being drunk at a gig with Denai and then when we actually did them it was amazing! I remember thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m producing an album with a string arrangement on it and a gospel choir’. It was the best time of my life, really.
How do you go about finding clients? Is it word of mouth?
Once you do a bunch of sessions and that person likes you, that’s when you’ll get work. I mean I have a manager now, but Denai’s came out of the blue really. I was assisting for Metronomy in the studio and Denai’s A&R came in — but I met her really briefly. The next week I saw her at the DICE Girl’s day and she said she didn’t know many female producers and invited me for a coffee. She said she thought I’d be really good for Denai, so then we just did a session — me and her — and it was mad because instantly, musically and creatively, we clicked. She’d done a bunch of sessions with bigger producers to see who was going to produce her album, but they weren’t really going that well. So you sometimes get work through random little things. When you do a session you should introduce yourself to everyone and be nice to everyone because you never know who that person knows. People I’ve assisted for when they engineered are now producers, so I’ve got work that way. I remember I assisted on Catfish and The Bottlemen’s first album — it was one of my first assisting gigs and I was terrible and the studio was also a bit of a mess — but six months later I sent an email to the engineer apologising. I felt so guilty about it because afterwards I’d realised what assisting was about and realised I’d really f***ed that up — patching things wrong, not getting it right, not being fast. But I emailed him and he came back saying he hadn’t even noticed! He’d just noticed I was excitable and keen and now years later, I work with him quite a lot! It’s just quite funny that I’ve got all that work from sending one apology email…six months late! (laughs)
Favourite piece of gear?
I love the tech-y questions! Hmmm. It’s too classic to say the 1176 [compressor], but I don’t think I could live without that thing. I use it on vocals, always. Ooh actually, the DBX160 [compressor] on a kick and a snare drum is my favourite thing. You know what, SM7s are great too — I know they’re underrated because they’re cheap but they’re the best. We had a vocal mic shoot-out recently and we asked some guests which mics they thought sounded best and everyone chose the SM7. Even though it was the cheapest one, it turned out to be everyone’s favourite. I’ve also got a lot of the UAD stuff, and that’s changed how I mix. I do way more in-the-box mixes now because the UAD stuff is so brilliant. A lot of the emulation plug-ins are amazing.
Do you have a home studio set-up?
Yeah. I’ve got a home set-up for mixing. I’ve got a good pair of Genelecs and a UAD interface, a decent enough set-up to do mixing. I know the room really well so it’s not treated — I don’t do loads of recording in there so it’s fine. I’m really lucky to get downtime in the studios I work at. Strongroom give me downtime on the weekends, so if there’s no sessions in I can come in and do the recording that I can’t do at home. So that’s saved me loads of time.
Is it hard to trust your ears when you go to a new studio because you don’t know the room?
Yeah definitely. That’s why studios are so good when they’re training you up — they make you spend loads of time in the room because you’ve got to know it. And if you’re a visiting engineer you have to ask your assistant loads too, because you’ve never been there before. Trust the assistant! So that’s why loads of studios are really keen to get their assistants to spend time in the studio and really know it.
What’s your most enjoyable part of the job?
It changes per session, I guess. My favourite bits of the job, for me, is if you’ve produced something and you get to the playback party and everyone goes nuts for it and you can see the reaction on people’s faces — that’s my all-time favourite part. I love producing, but at the same time I’ve got an engineering thing next week and I’m really excited. I haven’t just engineered for a while. It’s so creative, but in a different way. I don’t really know what my favourite bit is! (laughs) Sometimes you’re doing everything at the same time, anyway. The job is the perfect balance between creativity and the logistical side of your head, I guess.
How do you find living and working in London?
I think for what I do, I have to be in London. I think that the two main places to be are pretty much London and LA. I don’t like LA that much. I worked there once, I was assisting for like six weeks there. Assisting in LA is really difficult because the traffic is terrible and if you have to do runs it’s really tricky. But yeah, I feel like to do engineering, at least, you have to be in London. You know, maybe in a couple of years I’ll be getting enough mixing and production work so that I could live outside of London with my own studio, but I need to be here right now. Also, being frank, the best bands are here because when they’re signed, the labels put them in sessions in London.
Have you ever done the ‘countryside retreat session’?
No! I’ve never done a proper countryside one, but I really want to. It’d be great. I’ve lived at studios I’ve worked in, even when I did that work in LA — the studio was in a house and we lived there. I love living in London, but it is pricey. I’d like to live in Brighton, but then again, Brighton seems pricey too.
Have you ever had a technically-disastrous session, and how did you deal with it?
I think you learn all that through assisting, because you get really stressed when you’re starting out and then you realise that every problem is fixable. You can always find some sort of weird workaround. It’s more about taking a breath and not getting stressed. If all else fails, send the client off to have a coffee and panic-Google everything! (laughs) S*** happens! I was talking to assistant recently and we were saying how you can do a million things right, but if you do one thing wrong you get loads of sh** for it, just because the engineer is stressed. And how you take it personally, but you shouldn’t. It’s just trying not to take it personally is really hard! (laughs)