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Luke Smith

Luke Smith

Musician, Producer, Songwriter
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Luke Smith

Musician, writer and producer Luke Smith has been the keyboardist of choice for a who’s who of music legends, including George Michael, Amy Winehouse, BB King and many others. He also writes, produces and performs his own music and is working on his first solo release, using the full set of Aston mics in his South London recording facility…

George Michael, BB King, Amy Winehouse, Hot Chocolate
Luke uses these Aaton mics:
Origin
Spirit
Starlight
Stealth
Dreamgirls on steroids

“I’m from Manchester but I was doing quite a lot of bits and pieces in and out of London, including working with Hot Chocolate, and I supported Lisa Stansfield with an artist from Manchester called Distance Cousins.

I think for me the game changed when I moved to London in 1995, I was 22 years old, a couple days before my 23rd birthday. I moved to do a show called ‘Mama I Wanna Sing’, a gospel musical in the West End. It featured Chaka Khan. Originally It was only meant to be a 3 month show, but it started to take off and I ended up becoming a Musical Director and the show lasted 6 months.We also had Denise Williams and Mica Paris performing on the show as well as some of the UK’s finest singers, including soul singer Shaun Escoffery. It was an unconventional show; whereas a lot of West End musicals at the time were very tame, and  had to be toned down, this was like Dreamgirls on steroids back in the day!

Amazing singer, amazing choir and amazing band, so any artists from the USA that happened to be in town would come to see the show - like Marcus Miller, Luther Vandross, Prince, Stevie Wonder (to name a few) - just because Chaka was involved. That show led to me doing some other work with Chaka and then from that doors just began to open, people recognised who I was and called me to do a lot of studio recordings as well as live work.”

Frank with Amy WInehouse

“I used to be a writer for EMI Publishing, so I did quite a lot of writing out of their main writing suite which was in Central London. One day Amy [Winehouse] came down to the studio, I was playing the keyboard and she was like “Oh my god, you can play!” We just got on like a house on fire. From there, we did a bit of writing, the label was happy with the result and schedule us to do more writing together. One of the songs that I co-wrote and produced on the Frank album, and seems to be a lot of fans’ favourite, is the song ‘Take the Box. I also ended up playing bass on this song - this was my first bass session - although I wasn’t meant to play bass on it at all. I had a friend coming down and I put a guide bass on just so that when he came in the outline of what I wanted was right. But when he came in we went to another song so the bass line that I played ended up on the record, which is crazy.

Keyboards is predominately my thing, but I actually started on drums. I still play a little and find it useful, sometimes when I’m in the studio and  get a wave of inspiration , I may not have time to call a drummer, but need to record drums, at that point I will just do it myself. But I’m a firm believer of calling a specialist in to do the job.”

George, BB and Eric

“I pick and choose which sessions I do and don’t do, mainly because I was always of the view that there’s two ways you can do it; you can be generic, work for an agency where they call you, but they don’t know anything about what you do musically, you’re just a number, which I don’t particularly want to be. I grew up listening to some of the great session musicians like Marcus Millers, Steve Gadd,  Greg Phillinganes, Pino Palladino, Richard Tee and James Jamerson to name a few. These musicians have a distinctive style, when they play you could hear their musical voice. If I listen to a record, I can usually figure out who is playing, as each musician has a particular style and sound. I always wanted to be that sort of musician not someone who’s playing exactly what they’ve been told.

Having said that, I obviously also learned how to play exactly what was required for a gig like George Michael, that was the total opposite. It was more to do with playing exactly what he wanted every time, but there’s a level of remuneration financially to justify you doing that! There were certain songs where you had licence to be yourself, and that’s when you realised why you were on the gig.

We were the first band to play the new Wembley stadium. We did 2 nights there, 80,000 people per night, sold out. It was amazing, just to be a part of history and doing it on your own turf. George also played the last concert at the old Wembley, with Wham.

BB King was a character, he reminded me of my Grandad, one of those old figures - like ‘Hey, how you doin’ boy, you alright?’ - a big personality and he was very old school. It was just amazing to be in the room with such legends, to have BB King to my right and Eric Clapton to my left. Everyone in the band was very quiet in the studio - it’s like you speak when you’re spoken to ‘cos you’re just in awe of the levels of contribution to music both Eric and BB have made.”

Studio toys

“My rig changes depending on the gig, I’m endorsed with Yamaha so at the moment my main axe would be the Montage 8, 2 Motifs and the S90 SX – I was fortunate to have contributed to the design of the S90sx keyboard. I’ve got a million keyboards as you can imagine.

My first keyboard is a Fender Rhodes Stage 1 which I’ve had since I was 11 years old and I still use it, it’s still the best out of all of my keyboard collection. The Rhodes was made by Harold Rhodes with Leo Fender (The inventor of Fender Guitars). It’s a passive instrument with pickups on each note. There was a technician in London, Bill Dunn, and he was the main service engineer for Hammond Organs, Fender Rhodes, valve amps etc. I spoke to him about building me a Fender Rhodes preamp, which would give my Rhodes more character.

In the 70s Bill used to work for Rhodes, so he had the original circuit diagram of the suitcase Rhodes, he put the circuitry in the pre amp in a 19 inch rack so you get the stereo image from the tremolo left and right panning, depth and your speed and you’ve also got your bass and your treble and 2 inputs which was great. I later  modified it and put XLR outputs on it. So yeah, that’s one of the biggest toys in the studio.  I managed to find another one, so I’ve got 2, one that I take out, if I’ve got a recording session, and the other one stays in the studio. It’s a unique piece, he probably made about 15 for different people but I only know one person that’s got one.”

Desk job

“I record in Logic mainly. Sometimes you want to do a demo first and you record it in MIDI and my workflow is quicker in Logic, but we mix in Pro Tools. I stem it and bounce it out at the end because I find that in Pro Tools the panning is a lot wider and it’s naturally warm and sounds better. There’s a few DAW  now out there -  PreSonus, sounds good, and it’s the middle ground, because you still got the benefits of Logic but it’s got some of the tricks and the sounds of Pro Tools, I just can’t be bothered to learn another DAW, I just think sometimes you could use that headspace to be creative rather than reading manuals.

I’ve got a 737 Avalon that I used to use a lot, but now I mainly use my analogue TL Audio M32 mixing desk which I’ve had since 2007. Over the years I’ve got into recording desks and understanding the power of track laying through a desk. At first I use to drive the audio signal on my desk too much, and because it’s got valves on every channel, the sound was slightly distorted . I was getting that  crunchy sound, but when I realised and understood how the desk worked, and also got into EQing, I began to record everything through my desk.

Before I had the desk, I was trying to build a digital studio using just software with a few MIDI controllers, so I bought Roland TD 20 drums, also BFD drum software, as well as many other plugins and software synths. I didn’t have a second room and my space was limited so I thought maybe by getting software and controllers I could make the studio work. 

I was cutting a record in Germany with an artiste called Patrice and he had the complete opposite in his studio, he had a Neve desk, a 2 inch tape machine, an old vintage Gretsch kit, old Fender basses, a Hammond organ and a Bosendorfer piano, an old one. After we had recorded and gone back into the control room the engineer pushed all the faders up to unity and pressed play and as I heard it back, I just thought, you can’t recreate that in a digital studio. So I came home and I changed my whole approach. I moved studios where I now have two rooms, in Tooting, South London, I can  record drums or different instruments, I’ve recorded horns, upright bass, percussion as well as vocals. The studio is a lot better and I’m very happy with the recording results.”

Figure of 8 on the Leslie

“I’ve got the full set of Aston mics and I’m loving them. I’ve got a production company with 7 time Grammy winner Commissioner Gordon, he’s made records for people like Lauryn Hill, Amy Winehouse, Carlos Santana; Damian Marley’s ‘Welcome to Jamrock’ songs like that. Gordon and I do a lot of remote studio recordings, last night I was recording some Hammond for him, I’ve been using 2 Aston Starlights on the top of the Hammond Leslie, one labelled left and the other right. I used the Stealth for the bottom  in the Ribbon setting  [D] and sometimes I use the Spirit above the Leslie in a figure of 8 setting and I never get any complaints from clients, it just sounds great.

I seem to use the Spirit a lot for the vocals, I think it’s got a really lovely sheen on it, a nice sparkle and it’s warm, it seems very transparent and very natural, doesn’t feel like the sound is coloured at all, which I like. I’ve got another valve mic, a Chinese mic that I’ve had for about 15 years. Sometimes companies make these copies and sometimes they get the sound right but then the company goes out of business and you end up with this mic where there’s no information or schematics. You don’t know anything about the mic, it sounds great, and no one knows why, and you put it up against a big mic in the studio and it still sounds great, it’s one of those £300 jobs that’s served me well but the Spirit stands up to it, which is a good sign, the characters of the mics are similar.”

Stealth and Starlight

“I tried the Stealth on a trumpet. I use it in the ribbon [D] setting at the moment, so it’s very dark. I had it up to the trumpet, and I put a Starlight mic next to it as well, so I’m using two mics to get one sound - I’m getting all that breathy stuff from the Starlight and the warmth from the Stealth and it works well, it gave me a really big sound. It’s still mono so when it’s in the DAW you’ve got the two signals and if you need it to be a little bit warmer you push the Stealth up a little, if you want it a bit thinner you pull it down.

That’s the good thing about the Stealth mic, the switching - you want to experiment and you just try something - otherwise normally you would have to disconnect the mic,  get another mic, change the gain structure, with this you lose time and the vibe is gone. Having the mic set increases your workflow.

The musician that I got playing trumpet on my record is Mo Pleasure, another amazing musician, American dude, he was the bass player for Ray Charles, and he was the musical director and keyboard player for 13 years with Earth Wind & Fire. He was also the 2nd keyboard player on the Michael Jackson ‘This Is It’ tour. He’s also the musical director for Bette Midler and plays keyboards, bass and trumpet for her. I’m in the middle of doing my records, about to do the release, so I had him play some trumpet and bass on my track.”

Up the steep hill

“I’m putting out my first solo release on 15th May. Very happy with what I’ve done, I’ve got a single, an EP and an album to come out. I’m very fortunate to have friends like Roy Ayers play xylophones, Pino Palladino on bass, Najee on saxophone amongst others,  I’m really happy with it. It’s going out under my own name on my own label.

I was supposed to be on the road now with a huge star which I can’t talk about yet, but obviously it’s been postponed because of the virus thing, so not sure as yet when that will start. It’s about keeping yourself ready, and on that tour I’ll be playing drums and keyboards as well as singing so it’ll be a great tour. I’ve also got a few possible film situations in America that I’ll be working on but it’s not in stone yet.

I just like to try and keep myself in a very creative space and I don’t like to do the same thing over and over and over again, so I try to balance all the different things, like being in my studio, writing and touring. My main concern at the moment is to getting my music out and I just want to get out there and start playing my music live, that’s a new door for me.

Obviously I’m  starting from the beginning. Even though I’m very credible as a producer or session musician, as an artist no one knows and no one cares, so I have to be humble about it and just accept I’ve got to work my way up the steep hill and let the music talk.

Hopefully people will resonate with what I’m doing and like it.”

 

https://lukesmithmusic.net/

Luke Smith LIVE at RNCM

Out-takes

Q. Who are your favourite artists?
A. Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and  actually – anything by  Quincy Jones,

 I grew up on Gospel music so a lot of the Gospel music is my favorite  too. Artists like The Hawkins Family, The Winans , Commissioned, Andrae Crouch, Thomas Whitfield and the Clark Sisters to name a few.

My mum actually has 2 albums out which I produced. My mum gets songs in dreams so she goes to bed at night and she sleeps with a Dictaphone. Even to this day it’s at the side of her bed. There are 6 generations of musicians in my family.

Q. If you weren’t working in music what would you be doing?
A. I think I’d be a chef, I love cooking. I think there’s a correlation between music and cooking. I can go in and experiment and do things.

Q. What would your fantasy mic be?
A. I’ve done many recordings in Abbey Road and Realworld Studios and they always have a big collection of mics but the one I would like is a vintage Neumann U47.

Q. What are the 4 words you’d chose to describe Aston or your experience with the brand.
A. Well-made, strong, clever design

Very well-made mics. I like the design, I like the fact that it’s strong because people drop mics all the time and they just put it back in your cupboard without telling you they’ve dropped the mid and the next time you’ve got a session you’re thinking oh, there’s a dint on that and what’s going on but the way these mics are made they’re really, really cleverly made.

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