The Sound That Steve Built
Marillion's guitarist talks to John Harris about the band's home studio and about getting great guitar sounds on tape...
Marillion's axe-man is a guitarist with a difference; not only has he created his own trademark sound, he's also mastered digital technology and shaped it to his own ends. John Harris talks tech with Steve Rothery.
Marillion have their own large rehearsal room and mobile 24-track studio, deep in the heart of the countryside near Aylesbury. This is the home of their 24-track facility, based around a Tascam MSR24S one-inch Dolby S machine and a Tascam 3700 automated desk. The adjacent large rehearsal space is where the drums, backline, keyboards and monitoring are set up — kit and cabs miked up, and keyboards DI'd. It's every band's dream — a place to rehearse and record at any time.
This enviable setting was the backdrop to my meeting with Steve Rothery, Marillion guitarist and one of rock's more affable personalities. Very soon, we were chatting about what the band is up to and why they got the studio together.
"We decided last year that we wanted somewhere of our own to write which had our own recording setup and was within easy reach of where we live.
We've spent so much money over the years in residential rehearsal studios in London that it made sense to get a place of our own. By the time you've included the budget for recording an album, you have to sell about half a million copies just to cover the costs! We found this place around last November, but we'd bought the recording equipment last year to do some live recording. We'd already used the older Tascam dbx machine for doing demos and were impressed with it — then we saw the new machine and desk, and decided that's what we should have. We used it for live recording on the last tour and we've used the setup here for various things, including B-sides of singles. The latest thing we've done is an acoustic version of 'Sympathy', which we recorded here and which is just about to be released."
For such a well-known band as Marillion, recording material for commercial release in a private studio seemed like a pretty radical thing to do and I asked Steve if the record company had been at all worried because they weren't going into a big professional studio.
"They don't mind at all, especially with B-sides, but now we're talking with them about the possibility of doing the next album with this gear because we're so pleased with the results we've had. There's a chance that we can hire a big house in France for a couple of months to do the drums and guitars and then come back here to do the vocals and keyboards. In addition to this system, I also have a home studio with a basic, 4-track Pro Tools hard disk system, working with Opcode's Studiovision sequencer. If we incorporate that into the main system, we have the facility for compiling vocals and guitars, which can eventually be transferred back onto the Tascam if necessary."
Marillion are relatively unusual these days in that they still record with the whole band playing at once.
"For the last album, we were all in the room, and quite a lot of that initial performance is kept for the record, including some guitar and vocals. This place doesn't have much of an atmosphere but it's a friendly environment for recording and there's less pressure in working here. We have actually been offered a moated castle in France with fifteen bedrooms and dungeons, to record in, which sounds like it could be a lot of fun. And recording albums should be fun because we've had it both ways so far — traumatic albums and ones which have been a real blast to do!"
I ask Steve whether the band find their 'home studio' better for recording, being without the fixed time pressure that a large studio can impose.
"I think there are things to be said for large studios in terms of the facilities and acoustic design, but at the same time, a good-quality mobile setup gives you 90% of that and gives you a lot more in different ways as well. We've just done a compilation of our singles over the years and two tracks were transferred from two-inch to the Tascam and remixed here by our live sound engineer. There's no acoustic treatment as such, but the DynAudio monitors we use are near-field, so why spend a lot of money on an acoustically perfect room if you're going to be sitting just a few feet away from the monitors! And we don't need to have the big monitors to impress the A&R guys, because they probably won't come out this far!
"When the tracks we mixed were taken to be cut, the ones we did here needed less equalisation than the ones we did at Metropolis and you can't get more extreme comparison of studio setups than that! As long as you're careful with the bass end, near-field monitoring is fine, although we are now looking into getting a sub-bass unit."
I wondered whether Steve was involved in the mixing process himself, and, if so, how does he find the Tascam 3700 desk?
"Everyone's involved to a certain extent, but it's very much the mixing engineer's baby, because if all the band want to be here you end up with six pairs of hands on the faders. You've got to be able to trust people to get on with it. As for the desk, the automation has been very useful. We had a minor problem with the software where the cues on a channel couldn't be more than a minute apart, but then they sent us a software update to get over this. The facilities for the money are excellent and, apparently, J.L.Cooper have brought out some software to allow you to use a monitor screen for the automation too, which we'd be interested in."
In the rehearsal room Steve has a guitar setup which he runs in stereo. It consists of two Marshall amps and 4x12 cabs, with two Roland JC120's and a rack of effects which he switches between the Marshalls and the 120's using a Pete Cornish custom built stereo A/B unit. At the time of my visit, all the cabs were miked up using Shure SM57s and the two acoustic guitars that Steve uses live were DI'd, but his live setup is also his recording rig. Before talking about the way he records, Steve first explained the signal path from his Strat through the rig.
"From the guitar, the signal goes either to a Samson radio transmitter and then a pre-amp or, for recording, direct to the TC preamp. From there it goes to the TC 2290, which I'm using as an effects controller with five sends and returns. At the moment I'm only using four of the sends. One has the Boss DS1 distortion pedal, which I use for all the solos and a lot of power chords, then there's the Boss Dimension C pedal, a Boss rack-mounted chorus (the CE300), and I use send five for the Rockman module, because it's a mono send, stereo return. The Rockman gives me that very clean, bright sound and its outputs are fed into a Quadraverb for chorus delay and a little reverb.
"The signal then comes out of the TC 2290 into the Pete Cornish unit, which takes it in stereo either to the two JC 120's or two Marshalls. There's also a Scholz Octopus, which I use for process switching on various units, like chorus on/off on the amps and the bypass on the Rockman module when I just want to use the Quadraverb on that send. It's all controlled from MIDI program changes on the 2290, via a TC foot controller to select the presets. The 2290 is the master controller of the system and I'm really happy with it, particularly the panning delays, which I use quite a lot to give interest to the stereo image."
Steve obviously uses a lot of guitar processing. I asked if he ever experiments with mic positioning to modify his sound.
"I learnt a lot from Rob Eaton — the engineer we used on the last album. He was great with guitars and he used strange miking techniques learnt from Bob Clearmountain, so that's a good pedigree! He'd put microphones up at various distances away from the speakers and use phase to equalise the sound. But for most sessions I've done, the sound is nearly all close-miked with Neumann U87s on the JC120s and Shure SM57s on the Marshalls when we go to large studios. Here we've got four SM57s on the cabs."
Is Steve going for any specific speakers because they sound better?
"We usually mess around until we find the ones which are less shot than the other ones! If I was recording at home, I'd put the mic towards the edge of the speaker rather than towards the centre. And the amps you use make a lot of difference too. I recently got one of the Groove Tube 75s, the Trio, which I used for a couple of tracks on the last album with my Marshall cabinets, and that sounded wonderful — the best-sounding valve amp I've ever heard. Marshalls are great at giving the Marshall sound, but the Trio has got three different pre-amp sections, it's so versatile and all the tone controls are exactly where you want them. I'm using it in my home studio at the moment, where I've also got a JC120 and a couple of little cabs and a Roland GP16, Quadraverb GT, various samplers, drum machines and keyboards. I've spent quite a lot of time on the Quadraverb and the advantage of it, for me, is that you can run a nice stereo chorus into a delay with a reasonable delay time and also a nice reverb. A lot of processors, like Yamaha SPX900s and ART units that I've tried, don't let you do that, and it's essential for my sound texture. With a lot of units, like my GP16, the presets they come with are really gimmicky pitch change modulated noises. I've got some great sounds in there now, but I sometimes wonder who's programming these original presets. Maybe it's to do with the sort of amplification setup you use, but I find a lot of the distortion sounds on the GP16 are thin and raspy, which is something I really don't like. I like to be able to go from a clean picking sound to a lead overdrive which is neither mellow nor too harsh, and very few units come with those sort of sounds already programmed. It's not hard to do, it's just a pain that you have to go through each preset before you can get anything even workable. But at the end of the day you've got to get a good guitar sound first and then add effects to it, as opposed to using effects to disguise something that sounds pretty naff. Try not to over-use whatever effects you're using just because it's a new unit, subtlety has got to be the answer."
Finding the detail of how Steve creates his sound fascinating, I asked about how he controls his TC 2290.
"Basically, the TC, apart from being a great delay unit, is the master controller with send and returns either on or off, and programmable volume levels. I've now got a Sound Sculpture at home, which I'd like to work into the system. It's a unit that will actually allow you to mix sounds — take your various effects and allow you to mix various percentages of each effect. You can loop round a certain percentage of a sound, then go back to an earlier point in the chain. For instance, you can have a graphic EQ going into a delay so that each time the repeat comes round it is a little more equalised. Another thing the Sound Sculpture will do is overcome the limitation of only having five sends and returns. Also, because of the way the 2290 works, if you return in stereo, only half of the signal is then processed by the internal delay, which is a slight drawback. That's why I use the delay in the Quadraverb.
I'll keep the TC 2290 though, because the quality of the sound is better than anything I've tried, and it can produce some interesting modulation and panning effects."
I noticed a few old favourites in Steve's setup — a Boss chorus, for instance...
"Yes, it's just a great sound, even if it is rather noisy, but as long as you're careful, you can get away with a certain amount of noise. I don't often gate anything to tape, except for the Rockman, which is probably the most noisy thing in my rack, and that has a built-in gate. The Boss distortion pedal picks up a fair bit of RF interference but it all depends on the signal-to-noise ratio for recording. In the studio, the mute automation is usually used on the guitar for things like gating.
"I really like the different characteristics of various chorus units and I use the chorus in the JC120s, in the Quadraverb, and the Dimension C, as well as the CE300. I switch between them for different songs and occasionally mix one with the amp choruses, which I run with speed and depth controls at maximum.
Standing in the rehearsal room and listening to Steve play the guitar, the sound is big — rich with chorus and made full by the enlarging and sustaining effects of delay. He always uses the chorus before the delay in the signal path, and when using distortion for his characteristic smooth lead sound, that's run before the chorus. There's a fair amount of echo from the Quadraverb, to give the sound space and depth without swamping it, and the whole sound can be subtly autopanned using the TC 2290 to great effect. The basis of the sound is the Strat fitted with EMG pickups.
"They're the EMG SA Golds, which I've had for quite a while, and they have a midrange boost, which I don't use much except for that extra bit of push when I'm recording with the Marshalls.
"The TC preamp is very good for that as well in the studio; rather than messing around with the EQ on the desk you can use it to bring out certain frequencies. Unfortunately they've stopped making the TC preamp now, but it would probably make a very good second-hand buy for guitarists, because they've chosen the frequencies really well and, combined with the volume control, it gives me that extra bite for soloing. I also use the TC 2290 programmable gain to give me that lift.
"Although I've got quite a few different types of guitar, I always come back to the Strat because you can get a Strat to do everything — out-of-phase treble and middle position are favourite sounds for me. You can kind of do it with coil-tapped humbuckers, but I've never heard anything that's quite the same as the Strat."
Given that Steve uses a fair amount of chorus and echo on his guitar sound, I wondered if he liked to record these effects to tape.
"The way that we work involves me writing a part with a specific sound in mind. It's like creative decisions, really, and it's part of the craft of the guitarist to get sounds that are interesting, then get that sound straight into the desk. Otherwise the engineer will just whack their favourite effects on your sound.
I think you have to be pretty subtle with the mix and choice of effects. Although I use delay quite a lot I don't use reverb very much, so the sound is quite dry. But with rhythmic use of echo, you have to be careful to have the repeats at a certain level for it to work."
When Steve is getting a sound together for the recording does he check it over the studio monitors or leave it to the engineer to judge?
"If it sounds good coming out of the cabinets then there's really no reason why it shouldn't sound good coming out of the studio monitors. You've got to trust your ears — the rest is down to the choice and placement of microphones, and maybe screwing around a bit with the EQ on the desk — but not too much, because you should get it sounding good at the source. Probably a lot of my sounds are quite similar so I know how it's going to sound and I know how the band sounds. In a way, if you've got a picture in your mind of how the guitar's going to sound off tape because you've demo'd it before and you know how it works in that track, it's going to be fine. If you change any of the sounds radically, whether it's keyboards, drums, bass or guitar, that's the time when you have to rethink and make some adjustments.
"Also, when we're recording the backing track we're all in the playing area together, but once we get into an overdub situation I just move my rack into the control room."
It's down to experience then?
"I've done a lot of recording in the studio and at home, and if you can get a great sound at home on fairly primitive equipment, then there's no reason why it can't sound even better with good microphones and an experienced engineer."
I notice that Steve doesn't seem to be using a compressor in his rig; perhaps he uses the studio Tube Tech compressors for guitar?
"That's used primarily for vocals, sometimes for bass, but I don't really like to compress the guitar for recording unless the part has been specially written with a compressed sound in mind. I prefer to try and control the dynamics when I'm playing, otherwise the sound you have in your head isn't the one you end up with on tape. Very occasionally I'll use the compressor a touch if the sound is a bit spiky. In fact, the only time I use it in my setup is with the Rockman, because it's a part of that sound."
I ask Steve what the active DI is being used for.
"This is really for all our acoustics. I use the Takamine 12-string through an Ernie Ball volume pedal. It just goes direct to the control room. I like to record it with a combination of a DI and a microphone because it makes a nice blend of sound characteristics and it's good to have the choice. I don't use effects on the acoustic very much, and the 12-string has that natural chorus anyway! The internal preamp on the Yamaha 6-string acoustic is pretty crap, so I'm trying different pickups at the moment, but in the past it's been miked up and I've used this guitar on a couple of albums. I like using a capo because it changes the character of the sound, especially with the open strings, and I'm using these Shubb capos because they're quick to put on and don't affect the pitch."
At this point, we decided (sensibly) to go to the pub to chat about Steve's home recording setup, which involves the new digital Pro Tools system. He's really enthusiastic about this development in recording, and it's become the basis of his songwriting.
"First of all, I got a Mac about four years ago after going to the trade show at Frankfurt and seeing one in action. I'd been using the Atari for a few years and getting frustrated with it crashing all the time. I was aware of Sound Tools, and when Pro Tools was announced I felt that it was going to be the future of recording so I got rid of my Akai 12-track and invested in a new Mac and then Pro Tools. Most of the time I use it with Opcode's StudioVision sequencing, so I have the ability to combine audio and MIDI, which means that I can cut and paste both things simultaneously and even quantise sections of audio. It gives you almost the same power over audio as you get over MIDI, and it's a completely new perspective on the recording and writing process.
"Learning about sequencing and hard disk recording is a bit like learning a foreign language, but it means you don't have to think about recording audio in a linear fashion as you do with tape. It's not without its teething problems, but the plans Digidesign have for the system are great. The only competition I can see being interesting and valid is the Roland system, because of the price, and because it's a plug-in-and-play system; for a lot of people, that's maybe all they would need.
"The way I work when I'm songwriting is to decide on a tempo, then record a guitar part using Pro Tools and perhaps a second guitar part, maybe bass guitar, then go to the MIDI side of the program. I'll typically program up a couple of rhythm parts, then go to the keyboard and find a few chords, and that would be one section of a song. I can then write other sections and combine them very quickly into an arrangement."
I observe that the advantage there is that Steve is able to base the song around the guitar part. Steve concurs.
"As a guitarist, I'm going to write on the guitar first, and as long as you define the tempo it leaves a lot of freedom. But if someone does play, say, an acoustic guitar part into it and it changes tempo, you can create a tempo map from that by tapping along so it isn't tempo restrictive at all. The possibilities are mind boggling, and for a lot of musicians it's great as a home system once you get over the steep learning curve!"
As the interview drew to a close, I asked Steve if he had any advice for up-and-coming guitarists.
"I'd say that the only thing for musicians is to try and develop as writers as well as players, because there's a tendency for young guitarists to go for the Steve Vai type of sound, with the emphasis entirely on technique. If you're only going to play the guitar for a couple of hours a day, you ought to spend at least half that time trying to write, because it's much more satisfying, long-term, to come up with something original and interesting."