MIDI by Numbers
An interview with, the BPI's Producer of the Year. | Steve Levine
Culture Club producer Steve Levine discusses his attitudes to modern music-making, and how the new interface makes his life easier.
From a fairly unpromising start as a school-leaver tape-op at CBS Studios in London, Steve Levine has risen to become one of modern music's most sought-after engineers and producers. His credits include all the Culture Club hits from 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?' onwards, and a host of other singles successes with names such as David Grant, Secret Affair and The Jags. More recently he has started work on albums by Helen Terry and The Beach Boys, but perhaps more excitingly, he has also been making an album in his own studio under his own name, to be released by Chrysalis later in the year.
Tim Oakes spoke to him recently about his attitudes to recording and writing music, and how modern technological advances in general and MIDI in particular — have influenced his method of working.
'AII the new technology that has become available has made the role of producer very different from what we understood by the term ten or even five years ago. I see my role now as someone who interprets the musical and technical ideas of songwriters - someone who offers a band a sort of technical advice centre, if you like. If a band wants a certain sound I have to be able to get it, and for me there's no question where that responsibility lies.
I also see an involvement for me in helping sort out the formula behind a song: getting all the bits into the right order. Quite often a band will come to me with some great ideas, but I find they've been living with a song for so long that they can't see the obvious - like a hook that could be extended, for instance.
I want to be able to offer my bands the very best service they could possibly have, and if something new and exciting appears, then I want it. I've got the only AMS rack in the world with a maximum 25 seconds delay, and that cost about £25,000 in all, plus of course I've got the Fairlight (£30,000), and the Emulator, though a lot of people ask me why I've got both. The reason really is that the Emulator's sampling is a lot better than the CMI because of their compression, and also there's the fact that the E-mu Interface has almost negligible time delay, and can be driven very easily from the Roland MC4 Microcomposer.
Not all the equipment I use is so phenomenally expensive, though. I've got the complete Oberheim system (DMX, DSX and OB8), a Prophet T8, and I still use Prophet 5 now and again. I have got a problem at the moment though because it seems almost everything is going over to MIDI. I've actually got the very first MIDI OB8 - I had it converted. I'm pretty sure it's the first one because Chase Musicians - where I buy most of my synths - had only this one in stock: I got it for the studio and they wanted to keep it in the shop! (An Oberheim-sanctioned OB8 MIDI retro-fit has been available since January.) It's proved very useful for running the DSX sequencer with other synths.
I've just got hold of an SCI Six-Trak which I think is very good value for money, and I'm also beginning to get used to the DX7. I find it's one of the few synths that's really useful above 10kHz, though it can still sound pretty awful if you push it to the limit.
Even amongst all this high technology, I've still got time for a few older instruments. I stil use an old Korg Delta string synth - the first electronic instrument I ever bought. I used it on 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?', which surprises a lot of people. I've still got a Minimoog as well. We did a session not long ago using a Jupiter 8 for the bass, but I realised it just wasn't cutting through the sound at all. So out came the Minimoog and it was brilliant. It's the one thing the Moog is tremendous for - a big, fat, rich bass sound, quite unlike any of the newer synths. It stands out without interfering with any other synths that might be on the track. The David Grant sessions that produced 'Watching You, Watching Me' used the Minimoog with Prophet and Oberheim layered over the top...
Two other bits of MIDI gear that I've bought recently are the Roland MSQ700 and TR909 (both reviewed in E&MM April). The MSQ is really good. Its' MIDI sequencing potential is very wide, but one reason why I've been able to use it so fully so early is that I seem to be getting better at understanding Roland's manuals. Either they're writing them better or I'm just getting the hang of them.
The TR909 is one of the few things I've been using on the drum side apart from the LinnDrum. I've used it on some of the sessions for Helen Terry's solo album, and it's worked very well indeed. It doesn't sound like the Linn at all, but I do think that sometimes the Linn can sound a bit samey, and I like to have some variation. What I like very much about the 909 is its' flamming ability, which is so easy to use.
I really do think it's important that when you use a complex piece of hi-tech equipment, you know what you're trying to do and how you're going go about doing it, or at least have the instrument long enough to be able to find out. It really is no use for me to go to hire companies to get equipment, partly because you never know precisely when you're going to need something, and also because you never really get to know the limitations of the thing.
I saw a lot of that when I was an engineer in the early days. People would hire an ARP Odyssey without a clue how to work it or what it did. You can't possibly get to grips with a device like that if you're having to experiment all the time.
I get to practice with all the equipment after the sessions, and while I'm not a keyboard player by any stretch of the imagination, I can get to play some quite respectable parts because I know how the equipment works, and what little musical knowledge I do have goes so much further.
My experiences with the Fairlight go a long way towards illustrating my point, I think. The first week I had it I got the most incredible Fender Rhodes sound, but I hadn't worked out what the Save commands were, so as soon as the power went off I lost it.
I've used the Fairlight quite a lot on my own album as a musical thing, but I've used it perhaps more because of the control capabilities that it gives over the rest of the system. I have a SMPTE generator for the control tracks which makes things a lot easier in the long run: clocking different machines and instruments together is still one of the biggest headaches as far as I'm concerned. I still have problems getting everything to run properly - there's even some trouble on 'Karma Chameleon'. I started off with a LinnDrum timing track, but the problem was that at that time I didn't have the Conductors and couldn't run the Linn from the Fairlight, so I put a Linn code down on tape with the drum machine running at full speed. For some reason there was a slight error on the code, and the Linn was speeding up all the way through the track. When we overdubbed the toms I noticed that they were flamming towards the end, which was very odd. It was all OK until we started doing the vocals, and then became really obvious - by the end of the song they're coming in a bit early to compensate.
These clocking problems are part of the reason I'm interested in electronics, because you can build all sorts of useful things yourself. When I was at school my main hobby was electronics, and later on I built an E&MM Noise Gate. I actually used it on 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?' It isn't all that great as a noise gate, but it's a superb guitar limiter! An awful lot of people have asked me how I got that guitar sound, and they're always incredulous when I tell them I actually built the unit myself.
It's like the synths, really.
Almost all of mine have been modified to do a certain job. Before MIDI came along I managed to acquire a whole battery of little boxes for converting one thing to another - audio to voltage or whatever. Dave Simmons, who I knew when he was just starting out, put an interface into my first Linn that gave it the correct CV outs for the Simmons rack; then the guys at Chase Musicians put in another interface to give it the correct Clock Pulse out - I've got things like the Oberheim that require a very high clock, 96 - and they gave it the ability to double the available pulse.
So getting all the various interfaces has really been a bit of a bind. MIDI is still in its infancy and I think it's a bit misunderstood - people are expecting too much of it, perhaps - but as a system it works very well. With luck I won't need so many little boxes in the future!'
MIDI Supplement - Part One
Interview by Tim Oakes
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