An Audience With Aziz | Aziz
Leading session guitarist Aziz talks to John Harris about playing, recording, and hi-tech guitar processors.
One of the UK's top session guitarists talks to John Harris about his career, his equipment, and his philosophy.
As a session guitarist, Aziz has something of a unique musical background, being influenced both by the Eastern style of his Pakistani roots, and the Manchester session scene. His days of playing with as many bands as possible on the pub, club and studio circuit taught him a variety of styles and musical disciplines which he has been able to put to good use working with Simply Red, Rebel MC, Ruby Turner, Easterhouse and Cissy Stone. I manage to catch him at the end of a tour with Errol Brown, on which he played guitar as well as being musical director. We meet up at the Systems Workshop office in Oswestry, where Aziz somehow finds the time to give advice on guitar systems. Technically his own guitar setup is pretty awesome, containing a variety of pre-amps, effects units, a Yamaha DMP7 mixer and the new programmable Sound Sculpture routing system.
I begin by asking him about his session work, wondering primarily whether diversity of guitar playing style helps in the studio.
"On a session, you're obviously being paid to do a job and the first thing you have to learn is how to humble yourself for the benefit of people who sometimes don't know the best way to achieve a good guitar sound or how to get the best from you. At the end of the day you have to remember that they're paying. If you're very quick with ideas and you can get them across to a producer or a self-producing band before they can suggest anything to you, and they like it, then your idea is down on tape — something that you personally thought up and enjoyed playing. On the other hand, some producers have set ideas and will even programme your sound for you. Some guitarists might then put themselves on auto-pilot and just carry on, whereas others will try to change a producer's mind. Session players have to have a certain type of character — to allow you to get on with a person telling you what to do, tweaking your amplifier and changing your settings."
Surely if someone changes your sound, it also alters the way you play?
"Yes, it does, because you play with particular sounds and the very way you finger a note is influenced by the sound that you're playing. A session player has to be able to accept that change."
I ask whether there is ever the opportunity to jam all over the track and then have the producer pick the best bits.
"Yes, I suppose I've been generalising about producers so far, because they vary so much. For example, there's the type who know nothing about guitars but are very clever at letting you play through the track several times on different tracks and picking what they want. It's clever because they realise that if you give a certain type of guitarist freedom on a limited number of tracks, then they will come out with ideas which are very valuable and probably wouldn't have been achieved by a person telling him what to play."
And of course, there's more spontaneity in this approach...
"Yes, especially if it's the first take or the first few takes when the ideas are fresh, because they're often the best ones. I think I've found that to be true through trial and error in my years of session playing.
"My favourite approach would be where the producer gives me the freedom to play through the track and record ideas on several tracks. A producer might say to me that he's looking for a particular type of sound and might use as an example some of the guys in the industry who have influenced session guitar playing — like the Paul Jackson Junior sound, the really clean EMG Strat sound which is on so many albums. Or he might want the Steve Lukather type of rock guitar solo. If you're clever you can throw in the sounds that you've worked on, and on hearing them the producer might go for them. Even though the sounds may not be what the producer envisaged to start with, a good one will re-evaluate if it's good and it fits the track."
I ask whether Aziz prefers to play in the control room or the studio, and find he often ends up in the control room, where he can hear the sound coming over the monitors.
"At the end of the day, you have to hear what the producer is hearing and you can't always hear that on headphones. When you're sat in front of your amp in the studio, you're happy because you can hear your tone and it makes you play in a particular way, but what's going down to tape could be quite different. On playback you'll be thinking that it wasn't the way you intended it to be and you'll go home depressed. I'd rather know that what's going down onto tape sounds good and the only way to do that is to be there when it's happening. And if you want to make any suggestions it's important — it's the whole communication thing, really."
Aziz produces his own music and that of other bands. How does he cope with producing other guitarists?
"It's not been as difficult as I thought. Obviously for one guitarist to produce another guitarist risks a clash of views because I've never found one guitarist who can play like another — either as well or as badly. People may be influenced by the same guitarists in different fields of music, but set their equipment up in a totally different way. Whatever the differences, definitely give people a free rein over the tone, because to me tone is what it's all about. In order to get the best out of another guitarist, you've got to be able to let him do his own thing — and then give your opinions. Just one part that's been recorded could provide the foundation of the guitar track, or you might like the style of something and think the whole thing should go that way. Steer rather than manipulate or dictate. The way it should be played is by that guitarist and your job is to capture it on tape — I never use session players unless it's a particular style I'm not very good at."
"A producer might say that he's looking for a particular type of sound and might use, as an example, some of the guys in the industry who have influenced session guitar playing."
I imagine that there are times when Aziz feels that he wants to pick up the guitar and play on someone else's session. He resists the temptation: "What I've been producing are bands, and in that instance you're not interested in getting the styles of outsiders but in capturing the band sound. It doesn't matter what standard they're at, it's the songs that are important and that group of individuals are the ones making the songs."
At this point, we move onto discussing equipment, and I ask whether Aziz usually takes all his gear to a session or only what he thinks is going to be necessary for the gig. His reply is encouraging for those of us who don't have mountains of equipment.
"I'm one of these guys who started off very poor, so in the early days I was limited by my budget, and I also didn't drive, so I started off doing sessions with whatever I could carry on the bus or the train. I wangled a few sessions to start with, getting the breaks with a producer called Greg Walsh in London. Because I was limited by what I could carry, the best combination for me was portable guitars and pre-amps. With Steinberger guitars you can carry two on your shoulder. They're clinically clean with those EMG pickups on them, no dead spots and they can deliver what's required. The only other thing I would have was a bag, and in the bag I could carry a Rockman.
"If it was a big-budget session, they'd hire in things like the Boogie Mark Three combo, a decent Marshall head or a Fender Twin, depending upon what sort of session it was. A Rockman has just two distinct sounds — overdrive and clean — but as time went on and with new technology coming along, I found more units that were just as portable. The Zooms — both the pocket Zooms and the half-rack size — have an incredible range of effects. Then there's the Sansamp — straight to the desk and it sounds great! Anyone who's experienced in using good valve amps can hear that it's not quite the same, but it's good enough for the majority of sessions these days."
Aziz mentions the two distinct sounds of the Rockman — what type of music does he see those sounds fitting into?
"Well, for example, that kind of clean sound that's called for on, say, a Scritti Politti album is in a particular frequency range and it always cuts through. When there's a lot going on in a track you can still hear it. These days I tend to mix sounds together so I wouldn't just be using the Rockman distortion but possibly a combination of Rockman and Quadraverb GT for rock power chords. I'm certainly not limited for overdrive sounds anymore!
"I tend to use the ADA pre-amp in the studio now, whereas before you couldn't because it took so much EQ to get a decent sound. Now we've got the Palmer and Marshall speaker simulators, that problem's been overcome. I use the ADA through a Palmer line-level speaker simulator straight into the desk; it's got a kind of miked-up cab sound that I think is great. It's obviously not the only way to record, and if the session calls for miking up amps, then if they can afford to hire in the rack and a guitar tech we'll go for that, but in this day and age, unless you're doing some really major sessions, then you won't get that opportunity."
As a player who also uses a Palmer Speaker Simulator, I ask what the attitude to this unit is in the studio.
"I've convinced studios to buy them, certainly on the Manchester scene. In the early days I was trying to convince them to buy pre-amps like the Mesa Boogie Quad with its own recording output, or the cheaper Boogie pre-amp. If they're recording guitars it makes a lot of sense, especially if the studio is limited for space."
Some producers still like to use an amp in the traditional way, though. But in what circumstances?
"When you've got a producer who knows about guitars. If he's worked in the rock field a lot, then he'll definitely want to do that. He might try DI'ing too, to achieve a sound, or a combination of both. A Marshall, for instance, has a great sound — it's such a straightforward amplifier — but there are problems with reliability of components, as there are in any valve amplifiers. There are particular Marshall amplifier heads that sound great too, and I've found them in other people's setups, but I can't find one for myself, and the people who've got them won't part with them. The 50W heads are the best, in my opinion. On the other hand, for funk, soul and reggae, it sounds better in a lot of cases to DI the guitar. That's not to say that producers on that circuit don't know about miking guitars, but currently, a lot of producers are working in home studio setups where the pre-amp is more convenient."
We moved on to the topic of Aziz's rack of guitar equipment, which seems to be in a constant state of change — he routinely road tests new products for the Systems Workshop guitar section, and if they don't come up to scratch they don't get sold.
"Being a session player, you get asked for loads of different tones, whereas if you're in a band your distinct style and tone is all that's required."
I asked Aziz if it was really necessary to have so much equipment for sessions.
"I started off with just me, the guitar and the amp, but found that certain sections of the sound were not adequate so I started to split the different areas up — pulling an EQ section from one unit, a delay from another. Being a session player you get asked for loads of different tones, whereas if you're in a band, your distinct style and tone is all that's required. And all the pre-amps I use have their own character. With the Quadraverb GT, for instance, you get a particular type of distortion that is not really like an amplifier — although some of the patches are close. Yet it has it's own sound identity and so does the Zoom and the Sansamp.
"If I want a valve sound, then I'll use a valve amp, but if I want the sound of solid-state or digital distortion then I can go to one of the pre-amps. Then there are certain sounds that you can only achieve, for instance, by using a Boss distortion pedal through a Marshall head, or by running a series of pedals in a particular order. Because I've toured with different bands I've had to try and duplicate live what someone else has played on an album — not just the playing style, but the sound too. For instance, on this latest tour, I've been trying to duplicate the sound of the guitar hooks on those early Hot Chocolate records and it's been difficult. The guy was using a very early Roland guitar synthesiser mixed with the guitar sound, and the only way I could do it was by using a couple of pre-amps and mixing and matching. I achieved the action of a synthesiser sensor by using the noise gate on the Quad GT so that it closed as soon as I stopped playing. Through the DMP7 and the Sound Sculpture I managed to get the right mix of sound and effect."
Could Aziz describe the signal path in his system for us?
"The sound starts with the Ibanez Gem guitars that I now use to try and achieve Strat-type single coil and out-of-phase sounds, while the humbucker is used to try to get sounds more like a Les Paul. Obviously it's a compromise, but live I can't keep changing guitars. Then I run into the Boss pedals because they give a distinct sound — the Boss octaver, the new Metal pedal with parametric and then their line selector, which I use as an A/B box. The cabling is Neutrik and Klotz because you don't want to let the equipment down with poor wiring. There's also the wah-wah pedal, which is pretty essential these days. I used to use an old Jim Dunlop pedal, but now I'm trying the Boss model.
"From here, the signal goes to an active splitter, which I was originally using to feed the pre-amps which link into the DMP7 mixer. Effects are added at the mixer from the DMP7 (which has them built in) and from here the signal goes to the stereo power amp and Marshall 4x12 cabs. Now I've started using these Sound Sculptures, I don't need to use the active splitter. I have two of them, which provides me with a 16x16 matrix. Basically the pre-amps are in loops on the two MC8 Sound Sculptures, so I can plug my guitar signal into one of the MC8's and feed that signal internally to any one of the pre-amps and effects in the rack or all of them at the same time. The possibilities seem endless because you can then use any combination of effects and pre-amps you like! You can run all the pre-amps in series or parallel or feed just one to another, and all this is on programmable patching."
Even with this programmable system, Aziz still uses his DMP7, but it's now less useful to him.
"I'm seriously thinking of doing away with it and going straight to the power amp from the programmable Sound Sculpture. I find the DMP7s do influence the sound because they're digital. There's an A/D on the input and if you use the external effects loop you go through a D/A on the send and another A/D on the return, plus there's the D/A on the left/right output to the power amp.
"With the sound Sculpture, I'm keeping the signal analogue and I have two stereo outputs. One set goes to my power amp and the other to the front of house via a DI or it could go to a Palmer Speaker Simulator in the studio."
Noticing that he has continuous controllers from his pedals and a programming system of switches, I wonder how Aziz is using MIDI in his setup.
"The Lake Butler MIDI Mitigator gives me four expression pedals and I've assigned each pedal to a different MIDI channel and given them each a different MIDI controller number. At the moment, they're controlling some of the automated faders on the DMP7 — the master left/right output is governed by pedal number one, then the two internal effects return volumes can alter my effects mix and the fourth one is controlling the reverb decay rate which I tend to shorten or lengthen for rhythm or solo work. The other unit is the Ground Control, a great pedal-board, especially in connection with the Sound Sculpture — it's just what I've been waiting for. I can name the programs I've written to patch change my MIDI gear actually on the Ground Control, but you can go further by using it to get at the parameters of equipment in the rack. It's great because you can then edit the sound from the pedal-board when the rack is actually out of sight."
Time was running on and we had to wind up, but before we finished I asked Aziz if he had any advice for up-and-coming session guitarists. He stressed that a guitarist should look to his roots to find his own style.
"Playing guitar in a rap band is probably alien to a lot of guitarists, but for me, being brought up in a sort of hip hop music area and being Asian, I have these influences which set me apart from other guitarists — although still have a taste for heavy guitar music. One of the things that influenced me most was being on tour in the States and ending up sitting in a music store in LA listening to one after another great guitarist come in but play the same thing! It made me strive for my own sound and look into my own background to help me. For instance, playing guitar in a hip hop band, you have to realise that what a producer or rap artist normally does is look for guitar hooks from records, sample them and bring them in. And that's the guitar part — it's hard to compete with, because it's usually a great hook off a James Brown or Eric Clapton record. You have to try and find your own hook, because that's what will sell the record."
Interview by John Harris
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