Steve Lyon has always been considered one of the best producers and sound engineers in the game. His extensive background and professionalism come directly from the field under the tutelage of the legendary Glyn Johns who worked with The Who, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones. This was the inception of a brilliant career which has taken him through some of the finest studios in the world such as “The Manor” and “The Townhouse Studios” and “Air Studios” working with many Major artists. These included Tears for Fears and Legendary Producer Sir George Martin leading to sessions with Sir Paul McCartney on two of his solo albums Flowers in the Dirt and Flaming Pie. As a Freelancer, he would then go on to work with such great artists as Depeche Mode (Violator, Songs of Faith and Devotion), The Cure (Wild Mood Swings), Subsonica (Amorematico), 99 and Laura Pausini (Primavera in anticipo) which won her two Latin Grammy’s. Today, between Rome and London, he remains an authority for those who are looking to achieve the sound that has distinguished him throughout his career.  

We are a click away from everything except genius

Steve Lyon

You were born and raised in England, the indisputable home of modern music. However, you have been working with Italian musicians for a few years now. In your opinion, what are the main differences between these two countries and how would you improve Italy’s situation?

I’ve had the good fortune of meeting amazing talent everywhere I’ve been, but it is clear that there are undeniable cultural differences that exist between countries. This has a significant bearing on the way of living and expressing oneself. For example, Italian melodies are heavily linked to the complexity of lyrics, which in a way sacrifices the ability to understand the song. On the other hand, the extreme simplicity and directness of English allows for a much more complete musical product. To improve their songwriting, my advice for Italian artists is to leave their country for a while. I say go explore new places and escape from the fear of cultural homogenization imposed by industry.

The internet has really shifted the way things are made, starting from market dynamics. Has this affected your inspiration or the way you work?

The only thing that has changed for me is the way of making music. Nowadays, you can produce and easily study from home, and it’s even easier to have a viable audience. Nevertheless, the value of artistic work remains a critical question. It saddens me that we can’t dedicate the right time to create music because we have to take care of many other things simultaneously. For a musician not being able to make music for a day is like torture – it’s even worse if we are speaking of months or years. We have to find a solution because, if it were already hard to make a living with music, now it’s almost impossible.

If you were part of a band in the modern musical landscape, what would you do to reach the general public?

When I was a kid, I dreamed of making a living with music and even now I don’t consider myself to be famous and have no desire to be considered that way. I always thought that trying to style music in a commercial process, aiming for the general public wasn’t the right thing to do. In my opinion, an artist should mainly worry about writing something that he enjoys in order to show his true self, as well as his passion and sincerity. What he shouldn’t show is his desire to succeed at all costs, because reaching the masses should be a consequence of all of this, not the opposite.

Steve Lyon Recording The Cure, St. Catherine’s Court, 1994
Recording The Cure, St. Catherine’s Court, 1994

What’s the difference between producing a famous and emerging artists?

Surely you’ve got to change your approach, but the work remains essentially the same. For example, it’s easier to teach young artists rather than famous ones, but everyone knows that you never stop learning. I love production, making sounds and I don’t think you should decide everything by yourself, especially if you want to grow together. The soul of an artist should never be lost, rather it should be respected and valued through healthy collaboration. I have a story about this: I’m a very instinctive guy and, during a recording session, I suggested to Laura Pausini to hold her microphone without the mic stand so she could perhaps more easily express her emotions and let them pour out on a new song. An experienced and successful artist sometimes finds it hard to change habit’s, but luckily she’s such a lovely person and has fantastic vocal control we ended up something special. The synchronicity worked in that case, but it was clear that our professional relationship was based on something even more important: trust.

Aside from trust, are there any other elements that you consider fundamental in a relationship with an artist?

Let’s start with the fact that mutual respect is at the base of any relationship that works. Mental elasticity and courage are surely key elements to reach unimaginable goals and I surely take them into account when choosing who to work with. Aside from this, I think dialogue is fundamental to reach a level of understanding that will achieve the right equilibrium between languages and different experiences. Artists are often too attached to the idea they have of themselves, which in turn prevents them from growing musically. To me, instead, the beauty of music is when you make  that little change that positively shakes up everything. 

Now let’s talk about the aspiring Steve Lyon’s out there who are interested in a sound engineering career. Would you suggest a college education or a self- taught learning path? How much does practical experience count?

I am still of the belief that you gain the most part of your knowledge in the field, working closely with more experienced people. When I started there simply weren’t all of the educational opportunities that are available today. I surely would have been glad to have had these choices available to me. What I’ve noticed, however, is that schools don’t dedicate enough time to help aspiring engineers understand the importance of practice over theory. No one teaches you how to conduct yourself with an artist in order to help him understand studio dynamics and how to help him feel comfortable behind the mic. Nowadays, thanks to the internet the available instruments and methods for the study of sound engineering techniques have multiplied considerably: tutorials, videos, ideas, advices…and so much more. We are a click away from everything except genius.

Steve Lyon at ORS-Studios, Castel bolognese, 2012
Steve Lyon at ORS-Studios, 2012
Steve Lyon with English band The Cure, UK, 1996
Steve Lyon with The Cure, UK, 1996

Speaking of working with artists in the studio, what helps you determine the choice of a particular sound?

Instinct, taste and a healthy dose of courage. “Never be afraid to suggest ideas”, is a rule that should always be kept in mind. Only by trying and experimenting can you be sure that you’re going in the right direction. In fact, recently, I worked with a band that had a very complex instrumentation. In the end, we realized that the best solution was to do the opposite: simplify and lighten the structure of song. Luckily, practice teaches you that complex solutions aren’t always the best ones.

Feelings matter: what kind of vibe do you get working on a live performance compared to working in the studio?

Working on the stage is magical because of the emotions you feel on a human level. That sense of adventure and trust that is created during the gig is something completely unique. But, from a purely technical perspective, I do find it less stimulating. You feel like you’re reproducing something that people have already heard and because of the live environment in which you find yourself you can’t improve it as much as you’d like to. In the studio it’s the complete opposite: the challenge is to create something that no one has ever heard before, not by you or anyone else. I have to admit it’s pretty fun.

You’ve worked in many different genres in your musical career. Which one do you feel especially connected to and  what are your musical references?

Honestly, I can’t say I have a favourite genre. I grew up with Joni Mitchell and songs like Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da. The manner in which these types of songs were conceived and written I find to be sheer genius. But, what I can say without a doubt is that I don’t like opera. It’s not a matter of the intrinsic quality of it. I don’t question that. Rather, it’s just that it’s not part of my musical palate. As for all of the other genres, I have no preference. However, if there’s one thing I can’t stand and never will is unnecessary vulgarity.

You worked with Robert Smith, leader of The Cure. How was it working with him?

I’ve got to know him very well and I can truly say he is a great artist, a great friend and a great man. Over the years we’ve had a great time together and I’m happy he still goes around the globe playing his music.

Let’s end with a curiosity. Of the many artists you’ve collaborated with, there’s 99 Posse, a band that was able to establish themselves regardless of their highs and lows. Did your experience in working with them leave you with anything?

Every time I hear from  or see the guys, it’s like time never went by. There’s a great friendship between us. I love their way of singing even if I still have a hard time fully understanding their lyrics. I’ve always appreciated their grit, their passion and their way of speaking about politics through music. I’m honoured to have worked with them and can’t wait to do it again.

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