Tony Levin talks about recording tracks on bass and Chapman Stick
When the name Tony Levin comes up, many may think of the imposing bass player onstage with such acts as Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. However, aside from his undeniable world-class skill on the instrument, he’s also genuinely one of the nicest guys in the business. Articulate, professional and always ready with a kind word, he’s a pleasure to work with in the studio. I recently caught up with him to ask a few questions for PG readers about Sticks, amps, recording and his upcoming projects.
Photo provided by Tony Levin.
I do a lot of recording at home actually, because people can send me files to work with. The good thing about being home is I have all my basses to choose from and I’ll often use a different bass on each track. However, if I go out to a session I have to pick the few that seem right.
I like to use a Radial JDI Direct Box, and the JDV Class A Direct Box. Which one I use depends on the song, but they both give me a nice quiet channel. I run that into a MOTU interface and then right into Logic.
Do you use amps as well at home?
Yes, I have an Ampeg SVT with 4x10s up in my attic with a Shure PG56 on it. That’s when I want really powerful bass tracks and it’s easy to just kick it in, although the house does start to shake. It’s got a little bit of a scoop around 400 Hz; it accentuates the lows with some growl and really sounds different than the DI. When I do vocals, on my own music, it’s with a Beyerdynamic M 260—and recording amps I use the Beyerdynamic M 88.
How about recording the [Chapman] Stick?
It’s a little more complex, and I use different methods. The Stick has a top end that goes through a guitar amp, and I also use the M 88 mic on that. The signal is split using both DIs and both amps. I find that the top of the Stick DI isn’t too useful, so I’ll sometimes add some plug-ins to the sound.
How about your other amps?
I have a whole slew of amps that I’ve tried and tend to go back and forth between them. Lately I’ve been using these cool little Blackheart amps. On the road, I split the top of my Stick into two of them, with a little delay on one.
How about when you’re out with Peter [Gabriel]?
Then I do use an SVT. I can also have a trunk of basses and such. Also a pretty important ingredient for me is my Korg rackmounted tuner. It’s actually one of the most important things in my rig, because I try pretty hard to be in tune all the time.
What are your primary basses?
Mostly it’s the Music Man 5-strings, the StingRay 5. I’m a fortunate bass player in that I get access to the new ones, even though I use my classic all the time. I’ve come to prefer some of the anniversary special editions, which have a piece of mahogany in the body that gives it a little more sustain and quite a bit more deep end. I’ve come to depend on that for certain things. I know with Peter Gabriel it’s very handy; he likes it a lot.
I also use an NS [Ned Steinberger] electric upright bass, which I play on a lot of tracks. Again, Peter has come to favor that on a lot of his ballads.
Do you compress that?
Actually, in the studio, I’m often compressing the sound in some fashion in my path before I get into the MOTU. I often use the compressor that became the Retrospect compressor, which is out of production now. I got the prototype, which sounds different than the production model, and I really love it. I use it all the time with my 5-string bass; but no, not with the NS electric upright.
I’ve found for the power and live sounding feel of the bass, it helps to use some subtle compression. I also use an Empirical Labs Distressor if I want more of a studio, crystal compression.
I really like the pedals made by Analog Man. He reproduces vintage pedals and for the Stick, I like his CompROSSor compressor. It’s very reliable, and I use that on the road a lot, along with his version of a Big Muff.
What’s coming up for you in the future?
Besides cutting tracks at home, I’m working very hard with my band mates in Stick Men, which is myself and Michael Bernier on Stick, and Pat Mastelotto on drums. We’ve been touring for almost a year and we’ll have our first album ready by November. We’ll probably self-release and it will be in the usual places like Amazon and iTunes. But it will definitely be online on my website at tonylevin.com .
Rich is a producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with artists ranging from Al DiMeola to David Bowie . A life-long guitarist, he’s also the author of Pro Tools Surround Sound Mixing and composes for such networks as Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon and National Geographic.