Sabahan STEPHEN LIM | of HK’s sound engineering elite

A KK fairy tale

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  • Don’t write music in the hope that you will write a hit song. Write because you have something to say, some feeling that you want to express. That is more important.

Stephen Lim, Sound Engineer. February 2010.

One day, Sabah’s renowned finger-style guitarist Roger Wang said to me, “come to RAM studio and listen to a fairy tale.” So I did. Here it is:

Once Upon A Time there was kid called Stephen Lim, who went to Shan Tao School, near Sacred Heart church in Kota Kinabalu. When he grew up, he wanted to be a sound engineer and record Jacky Cheung, because he thought Jacky was the most professional pop singer in Asia.

Stephen is now doing that – living and working in Hong Kong for almost ten years, being the personal sound engineer for one of the biggest and most enduring stars in the history of Cantopop. The End.

Easy. Fairy godmother waves a magic wand and whoosh, Stephen goes to Hong Kong, right? Er, no. Think Cinderella: you wash floors, no-one wants you, and everyone keeps telling you NO.

“Everyone laughed at me,” Stephen said, when he vowed to work with Michael Au, Jacky’s music producer. “I really admired his work, and I want to work with the best! But you know, it was, ‘Who do you think you are, some kid from KK!’”

Stephen got a finance degree so his parents wouldn’t worry. After that he took a short course at SAE (School of Audio Engineering) in Perth. Then he packed up and went to Singapore, because Jacky had recorded there. “I have some friends and family over there, so was a logical choice. I was too inexperienced to go to Hong Kong yet.” That was 1996-97, around the time of the economic crisis.

“I called those big studios that Jacky recorded in, and obviously they told me to get lost. Like, ‘Who the hell are you?’ The economy was bad then.”

To be able to stay in Singapore, Stephen walked across the border to JB and back every two weeks, “until one day I was walking back to Singapore when the border guy looked at my papers and, shaking his head, said, ‘I can’t let you in, dude!’ That was it. I was kicked out of Singapore.”

Ugly Sisters Time

Two months later, he was back. “I found a production house in Singapore which hired me as an audio engineer. But, on my first day the boss said, ‘My sound engineer is going to resign but he hasn’t told me when, so I hired you as a back-up. For now, you have to work in the camera studio as an assistant.’

“I had to wash air ducts, wash floors, wash the toilets, whatever. But I had to keep working because this guy got me a work permit – it was my key and I had to hang on to it.”

How to get into the Prince’s Castle?

Eventually Stephen left and worked other production jobs until there was an opportunity to join his boss for lunch with THE Hong Kong music producer Michael Au. “Michael Au was sitting across the table, but my boss was sitting next to me, and I couldn’t say, ‘Hey can I have your contact details because I really want to work with you!’”

Stephen did the hard yards for three years in Singapore. “I felt it was time for me to move on, and decided to go to Hong Kong to look around. I didn’t have any contacts for Michael Au, so I surfed the net looking for possible studios and anything I can use, and I found this funny website which listed the emails of all the producers and music people in Hong Kong. Michael was there. I was very sceptical when I sent an email to him, you know, like it was too good to be true, but I sent an email to him anyway.

“Then I went to Hong Kong. I pretty much forgot about the email, to be honest. Then one night he replied me!

“I went up to his studio, which was Jacky’s studio, and I was really frank with him and said I wanted to work with him. He showed me around and I kept saying, ‘I would love to work with you, can you just employ me?’ He said, ‘No’. He said he’s not used to having an assistant around, he’s used to doing things for himself.”

Roger asked Stephen whether Michael Au was an engineer himself.

“He’s one of the old school producers from Polygram Studios,” Stephen said. “They have to do everything. So he can mix, he can record, he can produce at the same time. So he’s used to working on his own, in his own time, not having some guy next to him. I spent three hours with him, and I can’t remember how many times I asked him the question, ‘You wanna hire me, dude?’ And he just said, ‘No!’ Just before I left, I said, ‘Look, please consider me!’

“He said, ‘Give me a week to think about it.’

“I continued doing my thing in Singapore, and then after a week I called up Michael. ‘Hey, it’s been a week, what do you think now?’ He’d say, ‘I’m really busy completing an album, I haven’t had time to think about all this kinda stuff.’ So okay, I let that go, and then two weeks later I called him again. I kept calling him for about TWO MONTHS, and each time he gave me the same response.”

The work in Singapore was going nowhere. It was time to move on.

“I took whatever I had in Singapore and flew over to Hong Kong. I called Michael and said, ‘Look. I’m here, why don’t you just try me for free?’ He said, ‘Yeah okay. Tomorrow you can come to work, and if by the end of the month I felt you made a difference, then you’re in.’

“So I calculated I had 18 days to the end of the month! For the first three days I didn’t even see Michael, he was out and about, so I was sitting in the studio thinking, ‘This is not good! What can I do to make an impression?’ I was cleaning speakers and cleaning whatever I could, to find things to do. Eventually, the first thing he ever got me to do was extend the speaker cable for Jacky’s room speakers. I kid you not, I have soldered so many cables in my life, and this was so simple. But for the first time my hands were shaking so hard that I could not control them! Eventually I got it done.”

Jacky was set to do his next Cantonese album. Stephen was asked to mix the first plugged song for radio. “Michael didn’t actually tell me much, he just said, ‘Give it a go.’”

Roger said, “This is past the 18 days already?”

Stephen replied, “Not yet! This is within the 18 days!”

Roger laughed. “Wah! That’s a lot happening in 18 days!”

Stephen laughed and concurred. “Yeah, it suddenly all happened, so quickly! So I mixed the song, and it turned out okay. They liked it, and I’ve been there ever since.”

The Early Days

Amazingly, both Stephen Lim and Roger Wang went to Shan Tao school.

“I was ‘73,” Stephen said.

“I was 74, you were my senior!” laughed Roger. “We must have met. But definitely NONE of our musical influence came from that school!”

Stephen took guitar lessons young but didn’t get hooked. “I always liked listening to music though, and a lot of different music, Japanese for instance. Also music in different languages. I think it’s a gene from my grandfather. He learned to play the piano and guitar by himself, and he started a legendary music store in Gaya Street.”

Roger recalled it. “There was a music store called Phoenix, it was one of the oldest and most established music stores in KK. Recently it stopped trading, but for a long time it was THE music store. I bought my very first guitar there – it’s a nice link for us.”

Stephen agreed. “I think it’s probably a gene thing, why I am drawn to music. In Australia, when I found out that you can do sequencing with a keyboard, my mind kinda exploded. Wow, I can do drums, bass, everything by myself! That’s how I got started. “I never thought myself to be a really good musician, although I played in a band. I felt my role was more recording and the technical side, I was more into that.”

In the Real-Life Castle

Stephen thinks people misunderstand the engineering role. “They think we are just technical people (not musical). We balance everything. We balance the producers and the musicians, and of course we balance the sound. The job is more than just pushing buttons. Sometimes the producer will say, ‘I want to achieve so-and-so,’ and you must try to understand what’s in his head and try to achieve that. The balance is both creative and technical.”

Roger agreed. “A good engineer has to do all that. Some engineers think that they’re just there for the technical side, they don’t have musical ‘sense’ . The producer might say ‘jump to that bar, that chorus’. Without knowledge of music, an engineer won’t know where you are. He’ll be lost. In order to succeed as an engineer, you need to have that sense of music. It’s not just about numbers and checking levels.”

Stephen added, “Checking levels is one part of it. But when it comes down to the creative side, you have to have that sixth sense.”

Sixth Sense and Two Sabahans Continue the Fairy Tale

Jacky Cheung’s new album is ‘Private Corner’, a jazz album. Track 4 is ‘Love Scale’, written and played by Roger Wang.

Stephen and Roger met last Chinese New Year for the first time. Roger said, “I had heard before, that someone from KK is working for Jacky Cheung, but I didn’t know who.”

Stephen was a step ahead. “I actually knew of Roger, and listened to his stuff online too. I enjoyed his music, and I’m very proud to know, ‘Wow, a Sabahan actually played Stadium Merdeka,’ and I’m so pro-Sabahan.

“In Australia and Singapore, I’m always hearing, ‘You Sabahans come out from the trees, you guys don’t have air-conditioning over there.’ That kind of stuff. (Smiles.) So that gets me fired up, and as soon as I see a Sabahan who has made it, you know I would be so proud of them and I wanna meet them! So Roger was one of them!

“It was last Chinese New Year, a family friend of ours from here found out that I work in music in Hong Kong, and said, ‘You know, we got a jazz festival going in KK, could you help us bring a band in?’ So that whole process started, and I started talking to Roger, and then finally met him. Great. At that time, Jacky was considering his next album, and there was talk like he wanted to do a jazz album. So I thought, ‘Let’s see what Roger’s got.’

“Jacky’s very open. He looks for good songs, good melodies, not necessarily the big writers or the big names. It’s more about whatever works. I’ve always wanted to get a Sabahan on one of the albums. That’s kinda one of my goals! So I called Roger and said, ‘You know, dude, send me some songs, man. Whatever you have!’ He sent me four songs, two were instrumental and two had vocals on it. When Jacky was doing the selection process, I was praying every night, ‘Oh please pick one!’

“Eventually ‘Love Scale’ made it, and I was so excited. Jacky liked it a lot. His comment about the song was that it was the most hi-fi sounding song. I think he meant that — in Hong Kong — the hi-fi listening community are a little bit weird in how they listen to music, they notice the vocals, simple instrumentation, little bits and pieces happening here and there, so that song fell into that category very well. They were considering it for the first plug of the album (the track used to launch the album to the public), but in the end they picked another track because Jacky wanted the public to know what he’s doing, and the track they picked is very jazzy.

“But Jacky chose ‘Love Scale’ to perform live for the first time at his press conference. So that was great.

“Andrew Tuason, who is a well known producer and music director in Hong Kong, was called in to produce the album because of his heavy jazz influence. I spoke to Andrew and we agreed that we were going to record together, that was the only way to do it. So when we were selecting the band, he said to me, ‘Hey Steve, what do you think about going to KL to record this (track)?’ It was great, we were on the same wavelength, thinking the same things. We picked KL, and to be honest, we have a lot of great musicians in Malaysia, and lot of them have played on past Jacky albums.

Read Roger’s personal account here of the recording of Love Scale, posted on his blog.

Roger asked Stephen where the tracks with a big brass section were recorded?

Stephen said, “We did that in Hong Kong. The sessionists were Australians. We had Australians, some Filipinos. There was a Canadian and an American guy. It was an all-Western horn section. It was overdubbed later. It was actually three of them doubling and tripling up the parts.”

Roger said he thought they were very good. Very tight.

Stephen agreed. “They’re really good players. Some of the music was long, a bit complicated, but they got it all down. We went to Beijing to do the string section. Andrew did a really good job on the album.”

Roger noted that there was a great harmonica player, Tollak Ollestad.

Stephen added that on one of the tracks called, ‘Let It Go’, they sent the tracks to the U.S. and got a real American church choir to sing.

Stephen was bubbling with enthusiasm. “This album is so great, in that 99 pct of the instrumentation you hear is REAL. That is really rare in Hong Kong! Productions there can be very McDonalds: Put everything in the computer, use a lot of programs. It’s very rare not only to play together, but to use all sorts of over-dubbing of real instruments, throughout the whole process. This album is a live album from everywhere, and the album was mastered in America.”

A Great King is Continually Learning

Stephen said before Jacky did this album, he did not understand the concept of jazz, at all. “Throughout the album, he was learning, and learning, and learning.” Stephen said Jacky is at a plateau where he can push the boundaries of his musicianship without fear. “He is now at the stage where he can explore, and do whatever he likes.”

Roger said, “I was a bit skeptical how would Jacky Cheung handle this, and when I heard the first demo, I was really amazed.”

“Yes, because Cantonese has nine tones, and it’s really difficult to write lyrics in this very jagged kind of language, which is not really flowing,” continued Stephen. “To give him credit, the lyrics writer did a really good job. He’s an old timer lyricist who has worked with Jacky for a long time. We gave him the difficult songs to work on. Because ‘Love Scale’ has a lot of melodies, it’s difficult. So we gave him that. He did a really good job interpreting the original lyrics, because Jacky really wanted the original meaning in that song to be kept.”

Roger added, “I copied the Cantonese lyrics into Google Translator, and it came out funny but the meaning was right!”

After the first recording of ‘Love Scale‘, Jacky felt it needed to be a tone higher. Stephen explained, “Jacky said it was too low and sounded too sad and would make people fall asleep. Whereas it’s not a sad song.” Stephen said if they had just digitally raised the key, “I’m sure 90 pct of the public would not find anything wrong with it. But Roger, me, Jacky, and Andrew – we would know it was not right. So eventually Andrew made that bold decision, ‘I’m gonna get Roger to play it again.’”

The second recording was done in Roger’s studio. “I’m glad I got to try it again with Jacky’s voice, because I could play to him,” Roger said. “Especially the intro.”

Stephen had a surprise for him! “Not to disappoint you, dude, but he actually preferred your first version.”

Roger said, “REALLY??”

Stephen calmly continued😉 “Yeah. He likes the fill-in on the first one. He felt that, because of his voice, he put you in a square, like you were locked in. Whereas back in KL, you were only playing from a melody guide, so you had a lot of room and there was a lot of flavour that was lost. Just a comment…”

Roger took it all in. “It’s okay. That’s good to know. Sometimes, that was capturing a moment, when you’re doing it live. Free to make a mistake and all that, you know.”

Stephen followed the line of thinking. “Yeah. the second version was too safe, I think that was what Jacky was saying. Too perfect. But hey!” (They both laugh.)

Sabahan Stephen Lim was the personal sound engineer to Cantopop star Jacky Cheung for 9 years. Jacky recorded Roger Wang's song Love Scale for his only jazz album Private Corner

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Where is the Fairest Land of All?

“I try and come back to KK every moment that I can!“ Stephen said. “I love working in Hong Kong, I love what I do. But I don’t like living in Hong Kong. I still find myself very close to Sabah. I have to say, I’m very biased towards Sabahans. In a good sense. When I meet them in Hong Kong, I feel very warm to them, not that I hate everybody else, I treat everyone the same. But I will do that extra bit for the Sabahans. I guess it’s because a lot of my happy memories were with my family – my roots are here.

“I always tell young people to not forget your roots. Too many people wanna get out of Sabah, dissing Sabah: they don’t like it here, there’s a bigger world out there. You go out, but to me anyway, Sabah is the best. After I stayed in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, that’s how I feel.”

Roger agreed. “This is home. This is where I feel most at ease, inspired. It’s a place that you think, ‘Once I’ve got everything, then I’ll retire in Sabah.’ Then you think, ‘Well I’m already here! If I can make it work here, why not?’ I found a way to make it work: to still be able to expand my career, to fly elsewhere to perform, to work, but still come back home to KK. Of course, you can’t have everything. There are things I have to miss out. Things I have to say ‘No’ to. Because you’re not there, of course you will definitely miss out on a lot of things. But if I can just grab some of it, and still come back to KK to stay and to live, that’s enough. It’s as ideal as it can get for me.”

Stephen looked on with admiration. “Now, that’s something I am working towards. For me it’s a little bit different. Roger is a performing artist, he’s a musician. In that sense, it’s a lot easier for him to get jobs and stuff and travel. But for me, being an engineer predominantly, it’s difficult.

“In Asia — not just Malaysia and Hong Kong — but across Asia, (excluding Japan, I think Japan’s a strange one) engineers are seen as kind of the bottom of the food chain. People put their eyes on the glamorous side of things, they don’t understand so much about sound. They don’t listen to music in that way, they listen to music as: The Performer. The Singers. The Front Person. The Lead. They don’t listen to everything else going on. Only a small number of people would understand that. It’s also probably because of the way music is marketed. the stars are always out there, and the only person who is ever thanked who works in the background, is probably the producer. The rest are just workers, all the people you call out on a project.

“A lot of young guys will come up to me and say, ‘I want to be a singer, how can I sing better?’

“So I ask them, ‘When you listen to music, what do you listen to?’

“They say, ‘I don’t know, the guy that sings?’

“I say, ‘But do you listen to the instruments behind them? How they are interacting with each other?’ There is a lot of stuff that gets overlooked by people. Hence, my job gets overlooked too.”

Roger talked about starting RAM Studios. “One of the hardest things about starting a studio here was educating the market what you can do with a studio. It was only after the first 5 or 6 years of educating the market that this is what you need to do to make an album, this is what the process is — only now people are appreciating it. They know the technology available, and they are learning to make use of it. Then it gets easier. You really need that education, because people believe that a recording is just – you know, go in a karaoke room and press Record.”

Stephen continued about the future. “One of my goals is eventually to come back to KK, and perhaps working on projects from Hong Kong. I hope to get some seminars happening, about engineering, work with Roger or whoever. I’m at a stage where I can share a lot more, about what I’ve done and what I know: how to get into recording, the software you need, how little money you actually need to get started doing your own recording, and to bring it to a mix studio to complete your work.

“I really believe that the sound engineering industry will grow very, very quickly, because of internet. Right now we’re talking about illegal downloading, but if you turn it around, you can be promoting your own stuff. Back then, everybody needed to be signed to a record label, to make your own albums and get the finances together to get your music out there. But it’s easy now. We see a lot of guys putting stuff on youtube. A lot of it sounds horrible. But one of the girls from Miri — Zee Avi — got signed up. I think the field is wide open now.

“You will still need a big studio to do a lot of stuff, but the job field is going to get smaller and smaller. Educating young musicians how to record their own ideas and putting them onto the internet is probably the future.

“I am not an engineer who believes you need amazing gear to get amazing sound. I would be the first one to tell you that if you are a good singer or a good player, then you will get good sound. Forget about what’s in those magazines, ‘Oh I’m using a 30,000 dollar microphone,’ whatever. Those are good to have, but not necessary. You can set up a very small studio with a simple mic, and if your playing is good and your singing is good, it’s gonna work. Even if you buy a Macintosh computer, Garage Band — which comes free with the computer — is amazing, and you can do a lot on that alone.

“When I hear, ‘Oh my stuff sounds really disgusting because I don’t have THAT mic,’ 80 pct of the time I think, ‘Please improve your singing or playing before you talk about expensive mics.’ The fundamentals are paramount.”

Roger backed that up. “The more you get into it, the more you realise the fundamentals is the most important. YOUR tone, YOUR time, it still comes down to that.”

Stephen shared a secret about the Private Corner album. “All those fast numbers in the album, the microphone that I used for Jacky is actually a very cheap microphone: Baby Bottle. In Hong Kong you can pick up that microphone for 2,000 HK dollars. That’s like RM1,000. Still expensive for a lot of people, but we’re talking about an international big star using a 2000 dollar microphone to record the fast numbers. It’s about using the right equipment for the right moment. Not, ‘because I have that expensive microphone, everything I run through it will sound good.’

“I actually used some expensive microphones on Jacky’s vocals, and I found that it was — not ‘punchy’ enough — if I can use that word. I was looking for something a little more punchy, because the fast numbers on the album are very BUSY. There’s a lot happening — drums, brass and all that kind of stuff. So his vocals had to cut through. I tried two or three microphones, and the Baby one just works. So, from that, I hope people who are interested in this can see that picking the RIGHT gear is more important than WHAT gear you use.”

The Sabahan Chapter

“I think a lot of Sabahans want to go from zero to the top really quickly. I’ve met a lot of great karaoke singers who are really good, really talented people, but who just refuse to learn music. They just refuse to!

“I met someone who is a great singer, and writes songs, but just refused to learn music. I don’t get it, why? He asked me, ‘Don’t you think being able to write songs and not know music is a selling point?’ As soon as I heard that, I knew there was a problem. He is being influenced by the music industry, which is all about selling something. Listening to that statement you know this person wants to be ‘up there’ right now. ‘I have a selling point so I should be a marketable product.’ But my thinking is, ‘You could be really good at math, but if you do not know the rules of Accounting, you can never be an accountant.’ So please, if you want to make money from music, learn the rules about music. THEN break the rules. Not just charging right in there saying, ‘I have a selling point.’ A selling point will have a very early ‘Use By’ date. They come and go. I hope young Sabahans understand that it (the music industry) is not easy to get into. It’s not all the glamorous things that you see. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication.

“Loving music doesn’t mean, ‘I listen to music every day.’ That means you love listening to music. You don’t love music. You have to really understand it. Know it. If you’re not willing to do that, then please, don’t get into this business. This business is NOT easy!”

Roger added, “It’s very mean!”

“Very mean. Very cruel. You’re actually walking around landmines all the time. Anything can blow up on you,” said Stephen.

“You are only as good as your last job.” wrapped up Roger.

Since Stephen loves coming back to Sabah, what does that say about the world beyond Sabah’s borders? Is the world harsher outside?

“I would say, ‘Yes, the world is harsher outside Sabah.’ I wouldn’t say that Sabahans can’t make it ‘Out there’ because they’re too gentle or too soft. But all of a sudden, the door kinda opened, because of all the competition. Gary Cao the great singer made it out there, a lot more of them went to KL…”

“Karen Kong,” Roger noted.

“They went to KL to do competitions,” Stephen continued. “A lot of Sabahans were very successful. The door suddenly opened for them. A lot of them are like, ‘Oh wow, if he can make it, why can’t I?’ But that is the danger which I see right now. That’s they’re missing the essence, just looking at the glam all the time.

“I have kids that come up to me and ask, ‘Can you teach me to write a HIT SONG?’ I’m like, ‘Slow down, dude! You don’t just write a hit song!’ But that’s the problem that they’re facing right now.

“Sabah is growing into a city, people are finding a lot more opportunity that they never had before. There is technology and routes to the outside world which were not there before. Think carefully. Do you love music or do you love fame? Because a lot of them say they love the music, but they actually love the fame more than the music itself. That is a very dangerous path.

“To be a good sound engineer, you have to love the music and not mind being in the background. It’s not about the fame. Some times egos can get in the way, and a sound engineer will clash with a producer if the latter wants to change something.

“For me, the glam is nothing. Even today I’m timid to tell people who I work for. I just don’t think it’s very important. I hope people appreciate my work, more than (the fact that I work for) Jacky. I mean he’s a great singer and all that, but I think I can hold my own – so please like my work, and not just that I work for Jacky Cheung. If I tell people I work for Jacky Cheung, then I get introduced like this, ‘Hey, this is my friend, he works for Jacky.’ Then that’s it – another bunch of tabloid questions comes out!

Don’t write music in the hope that you will write a hit song. Write music because you have something to say, some sort of feeling that you want to express. That is more important.

Stephen Lim. Sound engineer. February 17, 2010.

8 responses to “Sabahan STEPHEN LIM | of HK’s sound engineering elite

  1. Hi!Stephen!That’s the best story that I ever read.Hope you still remember me(Meet & chat with you at the KK Jazz Festival!!!)My Brother Simon Lau is playing the Bass on “Love Scale”.We just listen it together yesterday,I like the arrangement,recording & Mr.Lewis & Andy(bass)is totally Super!!!!
    Keep on “Brother” I feel proud of you (Yes!SABAH BOLEH!!!!)

    • really marvellous to meet you at the studio yesterday, Peter. Thank you so much for your very kind and encouraging words.

      You will like these new videos I posted. I dedicate the first one to you – it’s your favourite part of the Stephen Lim interview.
      Best regards.

    • Thank you so much, Alvin. You have so much talent to share yourself. And it’s all happening here and now. Good life and times!

  2. Thanks for the comments!! Thanks Again Joanna for such a well written interview.. Keep up the great work!!

  3. Pingback: Another story of success earned by hard work to share with you « MsAudreyC·

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