Stephen Bartlett: ‘Learn the rules and break them’

Stephen Bartlett, engineer, producer and founder of The Audio Hunt, explains why sometimes it’s necessary to break the ‘rules’ in order to become successful in this business…

Every year, more and more gear and famous rooms become modelled into digital plug-ins, and every year they get closer to the real thing, reducing the barriers to getting almost any sound you could want. More and more people are making music, releasing it and building careers. So in the midst of this increasing competition, and within an increasingly homogenised playground of digital plug-ins, how do you make your tracks – your albums – stand out? What do you do to have a career that sets you apart, and puts you in demand?

With the recent passing of Sir George Martin, I took a moment, along with many others, to appreciate the life and career of the so-called ‘Fifth Beatle’. I watched videos, listened to interviews and generally took stock of all that this genius had given us, as listeners, as producers, and marvelled at the inspiration he provided to countless engineers. What stood out most to me was the relentless pursuit of innovation, both for Martin, and for The Beatles. It’s easy to forget, among the now-immortalised classic sounds and tunes they created, that they challenged ‘rules’ and broke conventions with every single session.

From my career experience, the best records from a production standpoint are never the ones that come easily or by following the ways of the past. “Making a great record is like mud wrestling. It’s messy, it’s fun, but ultimately there is always some wrestling involved…”– a quote from the great Van Dyke Parks which has stuck with me for years. It paints a picture of the engineer or producer getting dirty, using their hands, trying things one way and then trying them another. It’s in this tussle that creativity and breakthrough is found.

However, to its detriment, our industry has a tendency to approach innovation and new ideas with scepticism and critique. A seemingly prevalent ‘old hat’ mentality runs deep.

Breaking the Mould

There’s so much to be gained when you’re willing to try new things and are prepared to fail in the pursuit of something new. It means working together, finding partnerships, using other people’s skills, and seeing what happens when you collaborate. We have witnessed a huge growth in the EDM scene over the past ten years, and one thing that I admire them for is their never-ending desire to work together, to collaborate and to innovate.

Without slighting digital plug-ins, there’s a realm of creativity to be explored when you’re ready to think ‘outside the box’. The flip side of being in an industry that increasingly utilises plug-ins is that everyone else is doing it too. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using them the same way that everyone else does, and the result is far from setting yourself apart.

It may sound odd, but one of the reasons I far prefer working with real gear is that it breaks. Real gear breaks. It ages. It has funky tubes, alignment issues or a range of other things that have potential to add character. The breaks and imperfections can pave the way for something special; they can be the thing that makes something musical. Like John Lennon said, “art is knowing what mistakes to keep”.

Before you go dropping your prized Neumann out of a high-rise window, here are some ways I’ve been able to break rules to make music in the past in order to stand out. Maybe you can draw some inspiration…

Once I had a singer who felt that he couldn’t get the energy and the size out of his performance while he was in the studio (not even a booth – I rarely use booths – but a nice wooden room). My reply was to move him outside – Neumann and all – and we caught some background noise – even some birds flying past chirping during a particularly emotive part of the song – but the result was musical, emotive and worth dealing with all the obstacles.

I remember working with Pat Leonard a few years back; it was our first session together and I was hired to engineer. To say it was a learning experience is a huge understatement. Watching him produce was amazing! He knew when to change and when to leave it; when a take was just right. Halfway through the second day, he asked if I’d like to mix as well, and I jumped at it! His only condition was that I left the drums exactly as I had recorded them – no more EQ, compression, verb or anything – so exactly as I had the seven mics laid down. I couldn’t believe it, I’d always started mixing by just adding EQ and compression without thinking, but since then, I’ve become much more disciplined in listen first, EQ and compress later.

Joining Forces

Unusual sounds, experiments, innovation, is often the combination of unusual gear and people working together. The great thing with the internet is that now we can collaborate around the world, access any gear that you could possibly imagine, and work with people you’ve never met.

Recently I was involved in the launch of a new online service – – which, among other things, connects music makers from around the world and provides unprecedented access to dream audio gear through a peer-to-peer online marketplace.

I believe that this represents an incredible opportunity for those who refuse to accept convention as a limitation on creativity, and embrace working with others. You never know what they will bring or contribute to a project.

Whether it’s a Neve 1073, a Fairlight from 1980, or asking someone to play a Solina part on your track, this global connectivity can start to break boundaries and create new forms of innovation, find new sounds. I’m sure not everything will yield perfection, but the reward is for those who try.

So in any way that you can, learn the rules and break them. Innovate, and use any and all tools and people you can find to strive for something new, so that you can stand out, and live your dream career.

Stephen Bartlett is a mix engineer, producer and founder of The Audio Hunt, a peer-to-peer online marketplace for the music and audio industry.