STEVE HACKETT: Recording Darktown
Interview | Artist
The release of a new album by ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett is usually a cause for celebration amongst his substantial body of fans. Paul Ward talks to him about the making of his latest, Darktown, and wonders whether it might find him an even wider audience…
Steve Hackett is surely one of modern music’s greatest innovators. One-time member of the ‘classic’ Genesis line-up; the inventor of the ‘tapping’ right-hand guitar technique; a pioneer in the use of Ambisonics; a man responsible for turning a Neve mixing desk into a huge sample-playback device long before the advent of the sampler as we know it… These are not the traits of one who is happy to turn out a few half-hearted rock & roll tracks to pay the bills!
Although arguably better-known as an electric guitarist, Steve’s mastery of the acoustic guitar has earned him the respect and admiration of many in the classical field. 1997 saw him playing alongside the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to perform his Shakespeare-inspired A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Steve’s latest album, however, has him back in rock territory, and its release prompted a timely visit to Steve’s home studio. Here I also met Roger King, himself a renowned composer, who was responsible for much of the recording, programming and mixing work on Steve’s new album.
|Roger: “I often think of improving technology as a way of removing barriers, rather than offering anything really new.”|
passages from the album would work as an excellent atmospheric backdrop to such a game. I wondered if the tone of the album had been the result of a conscious effort to arrive at a particular mood?
“I don’t know whether I’d describe it as ‘dark'”, muses Steve.
“The ‘dark’ sound was not the result of a deliberate approach,” adds Roger. “It just happened that way. If there’s any unity to the album it can only be because one bloke wrote the songs. No specific attempt was made to assimilate any available technology or influences. We have noticed that people tend to either love it, or hate it!”
“Outside pressures dictated the form,” remarks Steve. “It was largely recorded here, but over a long period of time, with a lot of other projects in between. I’ll leave it to the listener to decide whether it’s cohesive or not. Some songs were originally started on analogue tape — a Studer A80. Others have been through ADAT, DAT and Pro Tools. The music has been flown around a lot in some cases, and not just for technical reasons. When this studio was built, to be honest, there wasn’t lot of interest from the industry in what I was doing. We were selling project by project. The long-term solution was to build my own studio and do as much in-house as possible, so the album grew over a long period of time. But that has been a very effective long-term move for us — and has got us back into the shops.”
I begin to question Steve about his recording methods and use of technology, but Steve proclaims himself a non-technician. “I love to know what something does — what it sounds like. I’m a fan of technology, and I’ll sit for hours while someone else plays around with something, but I’m not really technically minded.”
Roger steps in. “We now use Pro Tools and an Audiowerk card in the computer to record on, but we still use outboard hardware, such as reverbs, which are so much better. Dedicated units have the edge for us. Lexicon reverbs, the Joemeek compressors and such like just sound so good. It’s also easier to keep control with hardware, especially during a mix. Software plug-ins often don’t cut it. The TDM version of the Focusrite EQ, for example, just doesn’t sound the same.
“We don’t try to push the boundaries. When a new piece of gear arrives Steve asks if can do such and such. Often the answer is ‘no’, but just trying to get there often leads us to interesting sounds. One of the problems of trying to do things in software — other than constantly having to juggle DSP resources! — is that it often constrains you. If you plug things in strangely on a patchbay then you can sometimes get a new, interesting sound. I often think of improving technology as a way of removing barriers, rather than offering anything really new.”
Steve’s in-house approach even extends to mastering, which, for Darktown, was largely carried out by Ben Fenner. Ben is apparently a big fan of Waves plug-ins. Roger explains, “There wasn’t much to do on Darktown. Ben used some limiting, IDR (Increased Digital Resolution — a feature of the WavesNative Power Pack plug-in collection), and some crossfading. It was all done in Pro Tools. We still use outboard effects such as EQ and reverbs because they’re so much better.”
“Steve is fanatical about tone,” Roger confides, “and sometimes we’ve gone over one note time and time again. But at least timing is now one less problem for a performer, because we can fix that aspect in Pro Tools.”
Steve nods keenly. “Just in case anyone is in any doubt, much of the work that goes on in this studio is done by Roger. I take the credit, of course!” he laughs.
Technician or not, Steve is always open to new methods of producing sound. A sadly battered Gizmo is pulled from its hiding place in a back corner of the studio; a rubber wheel falls from it as it is passed between hands. For the unaware, the Gizmo is a motor-driven device from the ’70s that attaches to the body of a guitar and allows the player to ‘bow’ strings for infinite sustain. “I am still interested in something similar to this — hand-held, maybe with varying edge shapes on the wheels. I suppose I want to be a violinist without having to take lessons! If anyone has an old dentist’s drill…”
“There’s no such thing as a useless piece of studio equipment,” Roger reminds us. “Everything has a sound that is useful in some context.”
So, taking one example from the new album, what was done to the poor guitar on ‘Dreaming With Open Eyes’? Steve demonstrates by hitting, slapping and tapping the strings and body of his guitar. “We sampled a lot of these sounds and also happened to have some samples of an upright bass. I had very little idea of where that song was going to go — we wrote the lyrics as we went along. Once we had a basic idea and there was a convincing sound, I played the strummy bits for it. We made a lot of use of harmonics and glissandos that were characterful. It was supposed to be a rainy car journey. The rhythm starts with real windscreen wipers! Some sounds come and go like signposts on the road and then they’re gone. We put the guitar through the filters of a Moog synth to dull the sound as it disappears. That sound you only hear once.”
effectively have built-in E-Bows. These guitars aren’t as well known as they ought to be. At the flick of a switch you can get a sustained note, or feedback jumping up an octave. They’re an amazing invention.”
Darktown‘s title track features some gritty Mellotron tones. Steve’s love affair with the sound of the mighty Mellotron goes back a long way. He was largely responsible for Genesis’s acquisition of this ground-breaking instrument, which went on to become a major part of the band’s sound. Recently the real thing has made way for more reliable samplers. “We did get hold of some of the original Mellotron recordings, though, the strings were, I’m told, recorded by three old ladies in a bedroom in 1952! We tried to analyse the sound: two seem to be playing straight, but one is adding vibrato. It’s a totally unique sound. Paul Weller now owns my old Mellotron.”
I observed that there were also some beautifully realistic string sounds on ‘Darktown’. “There are some real strings on the album,” Steve assures me, “but we’ve made a lot of use of Peter Siedlaczek’s string sample CD, Mellotron samples and various solo cello samples.”
Roger is keen to point out that the arrangement is just as important as the sound when it comes to string parts. “You can’t just hold down fistfuls of chords like a keyboard player would normally do. It’s a lot of work and you’ll never pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, but it’s worth taking time over.”
The contrast of loud and quiet, high and low has also long been a feature of Steve’s music. “I like to wake people up when we play live. I loved it when I went to see a band and they had a lot of dynamics. I inherited that directly from seeing King Crimson at the Marquee in 1969. It doesn’t work so well for me when a band plays flat out all the time.”
Speaking of playing live… “Yes, I’d love to do it”, admits Steve. “This year, I’ve been very ambitious by doing lots of albums and it’s exciting because the response is very strong, but I hope to do some concerts before long. I don’t think we could do much of this album, though, because a lot of it has grown up so much around machines, not men.”
So the project was obviously not taken on lightly. Roger smiles. “Technically, it was huge. There was so much orchestra… so many edits — in excess of a hundred tracks in some cases, all bounced down to 48 ADAT tracks. It was a nightmare! Even after extensive submixing, the mixes took an average of three days per track. I’ve mixed on several film scores, such as In the Name of the Father (“he wrote a lot of it”, quips Steve). The technicalities are huge, with loads of various machines to keep in sync, but Revisited was bigger in many ways.”
I remind Steve of the beautiful simplicity of ‘Déjà Vu’, with its delicate acoustic guitar coda, and Roger takes
Roger on Genesis Revisited: “Technically, it was huge — in excess of a hundred tracks in some cases… even after submixing, the mixes took an average of three days per track.”
the words from my mouth. “If Steve has one great strength as a musician it is to understand the worth of simplicity. He sure knows how to play a simple tune. He’s also happy to take a back seat. When I have to get down to the ones and zeros he’ll say “OK, I’m off to the shops for while”, and he’ll leave me to get on with it.”
Are there any old Genesis cuts that didn’t make it to the finished album? “I started recording a version of ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ with Ben Fenner. I wanted a New York singer, but couldn’t find the right voice.”
And what of the Genesis Archive set? There were rumours that a new version of ‘Carpet Crawl’ had been recorded. “That’s true. It was recorded, but not released. It will no doubt be released at some time. I got out most of my original guitar pedals to play it, but I used the Fernandez guitar.”
So what next for the prolific Mr. Hackett? There’ll be a collection of love songs — old standards — featuring the voice of Jim Diamond and a classical piece with his brother John.
Steve Hackett is a thoughtful, philosophical man. He chooses his words carefully, keen to make himself understood with this clumsy form of communication that we call language. Anyone who has seen Steve perform live will attest to his eloquence with a guitar. Music may not be a universal language, but as a direct link to the emotions it works pretty well, and Steve is certainly a master of the art.