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September 2014
more... ArtistsVideosGuitaristsMay 2013ProgGuthrie GovanSteven Wilson

Interview: Steven Wilson - Of Ravens, Revenants, and Creeping Things

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Interview: Steven Wilson - Of Ravens, Revenants, and Creeping Things

Presumably, you demoed all this material in Logic Pro beforehand, like you have on past projects. That must be quite a challenge, demoing 11-minute songs, each with several sections, as well as tempo and time-signature changes. The drum parts alone …
Yes, but that’s exactly why they really have to be demoed in full. But, yeah, I spend a lot of time working on the song structures. I use the EXS24 sampler in Logic to program the drums—I play the basic drumbeat ideas on a keyboard controller—and then I send that to Marco. From those demos, he learns the structures and basic rhythms, and then throws it all away and plays it like only Marco can. The thing is, with this kind of music, you cannot divorce what the drums are doing from the songs—they’re integral parts of what makes the song what it is. If you’re a Neil Young or Bob Dylan sort of songwriter, your song is basically you and the guitar or piano. You don’t have to think too hard about what the drums are going to do—it’s fairly obvious. But with this type of music, the drums may be the lead instrument, in a sense: They may be the basis for a phrase, a whole part, or even the entire tune. So you have to really think about that, and you have to write that into the composition.

The same is true of the other instruments. A lot of the music was written on the bass guitar, too. For example, the way the album starts, with “Luminol.” You can clearly hear that the bass figure is the foundation of that part of the song, so of course I had to demo it on the bass guitar. Basically, when I’m in the studio demoing these songs, I’ve got guitars and basses and keyboards and drum modules around me, and I’m essentially doing my less-than-spectacular versions of what I want the guys to eventually play. It’s not just about sketching each part, but about showing the guys how it all works together—how the whole musical story unfolds. And they are musical stories, not just in the sense of the way I use the ghost stories around them—that’s another thing entirely—but also the way all the different sections unfold.

In a way, while progressive rock gives me all this freedom to throw traditional pop song structures out the window, it’s also a bit of a mind [expletive], because I have all these different sections to deal with and no set way to arrange them. In fact, I can easily write all the different sections of one of these multi-section songs in a single day, but I can then spend an entire week juggling them all around before I arrive at the right order. That’s when I know I’ve found the key to a track, especially some of these longer pieces. This also means I have to fly things around in Logic and tweak tempos to make sure the parts fit together well before I take it to the players. Because you may decide one section makes sense following another section, but then the tempo may seem sluggish in comparison and you need to bump it up two or three beats per minute, and then it’ll feel just a little more right than it did before.

Which guitars, amps, and effects did you favor for this album?
I used the same PRS Custom 22 that I’ve used for a long time. I’m now endorsed by PRS, but the very first PRS I bought when I was very young is still my favorite one. I have to confess I don’t know a great deal about guitars—people ask me what guitar I play, and I say “a red one.” I also used a Stratocaster a bit on “The Raven That Refused to Sing.” In terms of pedals, I used a bunch of the new TC Electronic TonePrint pedals, including the delay, the reverb, and the vibrato. I love very subtle modulation on guitar tones. I don’t like choruses, flangers, or phasers, but I do love a little vibrato or tremolo, or sometimes a bit of Leslie—we put one of Guthrie’s solos through the Leslie on “The Pin Drop.” Tremolo, vibrato, and rotary speaker give color to guitar sounds that might otherwise be sort of flat. My amps for the sessions were a Vox AC30 and a pair of old Marshall 100-watt heads.

There’s a lot of great acoustic playing and very lush, distinctive acoustic tones on the album.
Most of the acoustic on this record is an Ovation in Nashville tuning, which is basically all the higher strings of a 12-string guitar. It has that wonderful crystalline quality—I find it incredibly inspiring. And adding a capo to the second fret gives it even more of a mandolin-like register. I didn’t know much about Nashville tuning until about a year ago. We were on tour and a fan brought me an Ovation guitar as a gift. It was so nice that I said I simply couldn’t accept such a generous gift, and I had little use for another acoustic guitar anyway. Well, Tonto, my guitar tech, said it’s a lovely gift, why don’t you accept it and I’ll string it up for you in Nashville tuning? I said, what is that? Well, immediately upon playing it, I knew it was going to inspire something. I ended up writing “The Watchmaker” and “Drive Home” on it.

Steven Wilson's Gear

Guitars
PRS Custom 22, AlumiSonic Ultra 1100, Visionary Instruments Video Guitar, Babicz Dreadnought Cutaway, Ovation acoustic (Nashville tuning), PRS SE Mike Mushok signature baritone, Fender Stratocaster

Amps
Vox AC30, Bad Cat Lynx 50 head driving a Bad Cat 4x12 with Celestion Vintage 30s

Effects
TC Electronic Flashback Delay/Looper, TC Hall of Fame Reverb, TC Shaker Vibrato, Dunlop Cry Baby wah, Boss FV-500L Stereo Volume Pedals, TC Electronic G-System, Boss SD-2 Dual Overdrive, Source Audio Soundblox Multiwave Distortion, Carl Martin Compressor/Limiter, Option 5 Destination Rotation Single, Boss GE-7 Equalizer, TheGigRig MIDI-8 foot controller

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
D’Addario EXL110 sets (electric), D’Addario EJ10 sets (acoustic), D’Addario EJ38H sets (Nashville-tuned acoustics), D’Addario EXL140 sets (detuned electrics), Jim Dunlop Tortex 1 mm picks, Providence E205 guitar and P203 patch cables

I tend to double-track the Nashville parts with an electric guitar, which warms it up and gives it a bit more body. That’s pretty much the big rhythm sound you hear on “The Watchmaker” and “Drive Home.” Interestingly, though, apart from that I have actually taken to not double-tracking stuff on this album, with one or two exceptions. The exceptions would be the acoustic guitars, which I tend to double or even quadruple track.

Why?
Another thing I noticed about the classic ’70s albums I was remixing is the economy of overdubbing. Double-tracking tends to sound impressive in the studio, but it also takes away from some of the character of the performance as it irons out the quirks that give a part so much of its personality.

Do you have any tips for recording—perhaps how to best capture a solo or favorite plug-ins for guitars or mixing? My favorite plug-ins for mixing are the Universal Audio ones, especially the EMT 140 plate reverb, the 1176 compressor, and the SSL channel strip. The native Logic EQ is also great for the basics. But I have to say that, generally speaking, the guitars are untreated once they’re recorded—perhaps just a little EQ to filter out low end or add a little more air at the top end, but that’s all. I can’t think of any particular approach for getting a solo to sit right—but sometimes a really nasty EQ, or heavy compression, or just making it very loud.

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