Steven Stanley: “Youth Sound”

Common Sense at Compass Point.

ISLAND RECORDS’ fabled Compass Point studios in Nassau is home to Sly & Robbie and a rotating roster of all-stars, including Steven Stanley, a twenty-five-year-old Jamaican, who sits alongside Alex Sadkin as one of the two chief engineers for the studio’s myriad projects. Young Stanley has recently added the latest efforts from “that little ole dance band from Athens, Georgia,” the B-52’s and the “other half” of the Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, to his production credits. With a self-declared “instinctive, common sense” approach to music, Stanley’s naive yet complex production touches provide the sophisticated inner weave for each group’s sometimes cloying, child-like nursery rhymes.

“I do not use many electronic effects,” he insists. “I make sure the human element stays on top and the rest is underneath. Except when it’s necessary to get freaky, then I go wild… BAM! BAM! BAM! Most of the time, melody comes first, though. The effects are just coloring. I mix like I’m painting a picture.”

Stanley gestures with his entire body as he talks, often groping for the right words to express what he’s thinking, his gentle patois lulling the listener into its lilting rhythms. He got his start in the music business as a seventeen-year-old electronics student working in Kingston’s only 24-track studio, owned by an Oriental who introduced Steven to the basics. “I’d never seen a recording studio in my life,” marvels Stanley. “I just used my head to figure everything out, from the tape machines to the mixing board.” Along the way, he picked up pointers from leading Jamaican engineers like Errol Ross and Willie Lindo. Four years ago, Wailer keyboardist Tyrone Downie, a good friend of Stanley’s who dubbed him “Youth Sound” because of his age, turned Steven on to someone looking for an engineer to assist in manning a then brand-new studio complex in the Bahamas. That gentleman was Island president Chris Blackwell, and Stanley hasn’t looked back since.

“I’m not really technically oriented,” he admits. “I just like to screw things up a bit.” Going against the grain of reggae, the dominant musical form in his homeland, Stanley is an avowed “R&B and pop freak.” His patented use of delays, phasers and harmonizers leads toward a streamlined, modern, almost disco sound, but his innocent playfulness prevents the music from hardening into the freeze-dried syndrome that afflicts so many synthesizer outfits. His transition from engineer to producer was, not surprisingly, a natural one.

“I always felt the same. It’s just people started called me ‘producer’ and giving me points,” he laughs heartily. “I do the same things I did as an engineer. I give ideas where there’s a problem, but only after I’ve thought it out by myself. If it’s a good idea, I’ll speak. Otherwise, I keep my mouth shut.”

Steven Stanley’s first co-production credit came on the Tom Tom Club’s unexpected, off-handed smash debut. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth even revealed that Stanley was responsible for coming up with the signature synthesizer hook which fuels the hit single, ‘Genius Of Love’. Dit-dit, da-da, dit-dit… “I was fooling around on a Prophet synthesizer one night alone in the studio,” he recalls. “I play better then because I can concentrate. It just came out and it sounded great. I have the ability to know when something just fits. That first Tom Tom Club record was done layer by layer, one by one. Drums first, then bass, then the keyboard, then Adrian Belew’s guitar, which added a rock element. I came up with that keyboard riff after the drums and bass to the song were already completed.” Stanley likens producing to “knowing which bad parts to take out and which ones should stay in because they feel good.” He compares his production on the new Tom Tom Club album, Close To The Bone, to the densely detailed James Rizzi cartoon on its cover. “There are a lot of little gimmicks on it,” he giggles delightedly. “I like to put a slight delay on the drums and repeat it all the way through. Just enough for you to feel it, but not enough to really hear it loud. It’s below, tickling you. I play with the rhythms, bend them a bit.”

Just as he toys with disparate musical influences, like the variation on the James Bond theme in Tom Tom’s ‘Bamboo Town’. Or ‘On The Line Again’, where Stanley achieved a sensurround atmosphere by recording the different vocal parts in various sections of the studio, including the vocal booth, the echo chamber and a carpeted room. “And then everyone would come together for the line, ‘We’re gonna put on the dog,’ because it didn’t sound exciting when only one person did it. If you’re talking about ‘we’ and ‘putting on the dog,’ you’re talking about a party. You have to make it sound loud, dramatic,” he says.

While the Tom Tom Club have recorded their first two albums by improvising in the studio, the B-52’s came into the Compass Point sessions for Whammy! well prepared, according to Steve. “Except for the Yoko Ono song, which was supposed to be an experiment,” he says with a straight face but with a gleam in his eye. “It was just two words, so there was not much to do. Y’know, ‘Don’t Worry!’ So, I gave each member of the band a track apiece and they just jammed all over the place. And, when they finished, I just listened for the best parts to edit together. That song was like working on a jigsaw puzzle.”

The light-skinned Jamaican with the modified Afro has a reputation as an expert mixer, which he demonstrated on the “party EP” he re-mixed for the B-52’s a few years back. He recently did the same for photographer Lynn Goldsmith’s “Will Powers” project. “Sometimes people will want a hot mix, but with the sound they have, it is impossible to get one,” he winks. “Most of the time, I like it when a record sounds terrible. When you’re finished, you’re more proud of the effort. To me, the Will Powers stuff was miserable in the beginning. I don’t think the other musicians respected Lynn as an artist. I had to tighten up the rhythms, fatten up the beat. I used the Linn Drum and recorded my own handclaps to do that. A lot of people played on that record. I just put things where I thought they should be. And took things out that shouldn’t have been there. It’s the easiest way to make a record.”

Steven Stanley’s carefree approach belies his acute sixth sense of what feels right, allowing the final result to seem as effortless as a breezy stroll along a palm-strewn shoreline in the Bahamas. Steven Stanley has come up with the perfect summer sound for a new generation of beachniks. 

A Compass Point Checklist

What follows are the individual pieces of equipment Compass Point producer/engineer Steven Stanley makes most use of in creating his distinctive production quirks. He prefers real drums to rhythm machines (“They’re more natural, loose”) and frequently uses the delay in tandem with a harmonizer for repeating lines in varying keys. As for the strengths of Compass Point, Stanley admits it’s in the “vibes” and the communal living atmosphere it offers. “We have what everybody else has, maybe less,” he says. “What’s most important is the way you go about using the equipment to get the sound you want.”

• MCI 500 24-track board with 36 channels
• Prophet 5 synthesizer: “The same one I used on ‘Genius Of Love’.”
• Synclavier
• AMS digital delay and reverb with built-in harmonizer: “It’s my favorite. You can trigger it by programming any sound and simply playing it with your finger. I used this for the harmonized vocal parts in ‘Bamboo Town’.”
• Automatic panner
• Eventide flanger, delays and phasers
• Lexicon Prime Time delays

© Roy TrakinMusician, November 1983

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