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Producer · Engineer · FOH
Steve Levine
Photo Credit: Rosie Levine
Photo Credit: Rosie Levine
Photo Credit: Rosie Levine
Steve Levine

Steve Levine

Legendary Record Producer
Steve Levine

Steve Levine is not only a legendary record producer – who has recorded everyone from Culture Club to The Beach Boys – but a genuinely nice guy with many tales to tell and opinions to express. So it's a good job we have a great deal of them right here, so take it away Steve…

Culture Club, The Clash, The Beach Boys, China Crisis, Gary Moore, Space, XamVolo, 911, David Grant, Junior, Louise, Honeyz
Brian, the perfect drummer

When I was born my mum's friend Rita who was Jamaican had a son, Brian, at the same time and unfortunately he some quite bad disabilities. My mum worked so I spent a lot of time with Rita and Brian. Rita's husband worked for Morris and would travel to Jamaica to introduce the cars there. My earliest influences were the early Ska records that he bought back, and very early Motown records which I became very familiar with well before they were relicensed and became hits. I was fascinated by how different the Ska records sounded compared to, say, The Beatles or Perry Como. I now know it was because they had very poor equipment compared to British and American studios.

Brian was very autistic when he was young and one of his, perhaps enhanced abilities, was that he loved playing the drums along with these records, which he would do very intensely. He learned the beats all day long to the point that when he played along with someone like Prince Buster it sounded 'phasey' because he played along with it so tightly! That started to fascinate me and I was just four or five. Instead of playing with toys we listened to music, so that was my fascination. I didn't realise at the time that there was a DNA to that music, a love of it, going into me.

Right from a very early age, I wanted to be what I thought was a sound engineer – I didn't really distinguish between a producer and an engineer. Around 1965 there was a documentary with Phil Spector in the studio with his engineer Larry Levine, which was an unusual spelling of Levine at the time and the same as mine! When I saw that documentary about Phil Spector I thought that's what I want to do, be an engineer. I'd like to make those sounds' because that's what I thought they did. It was only later when I was an engineer that I learned that the producer had all the control!

Throwing percussion down the stairs

With Culture Club we were all about the same age. We'd all grown up as teenagers in the 70s meaning that by the time Reggae and all those great sounds came through we loved them. In the case of Culture Club it was a very specific melting of our love of different music. We had my love of all things Reggae. We had Mikey Craig who is a second generation Jamaican – his parents moved over here. You had George who was working class white who loved Soul, as a lot of people did in the 70s. Then you had John Moss. He had very wide tastes and loved Punk music, which brought quite an interesting rough and ready ethos.

John is an unbelievable drummer – I've always worked with great drummers, from Brian with his mathematically perfect drumming, to great session players. I had a good relationship with Topper Headon from The Clash. I'd worked with him before The Clash when he was a great session musician around London, around 1976. He's a fantastic drummer and also very musical – on Rock The Casbah, for example, he played a lot of the instruments.

The great thing with Culture Club was that it was like a great, giant toy shop. We learned our craft really well but we were not afraid to combine a synth bass with an electric bass. The musicianship amongst the band was actually quite high, as is being proven by their current world tour – people are quite shocked that they are actually that good. John was one of the few drummers who could program a LinnDrum, pop that down onto tape, play along with it and you couldn't see where the join was.

A studio history lesson

The recording studio always gets better and different as time goes on. When I first started in 1975, 16-track was the dominant force but 24-track was coming through. The very next year when CBS upgraded to the MCI machine and MCI desk, that was an 'oh my god' moment because it was such a leap forward. Prior to that, we had 16 tracks on a Studer machine where punching in and out was horrendously complicated and not very creative, whereas the MCI had an auto locator that worked and also had precision punching in and out. There really was a period using MCI machines when bands were able to do vocal performances that you hadn't been able to do six months before. Multiple channels allowed you to take more sources, therefore more microphones for a more precise sound. Then automated mixing started to come in and I thought 'wow this is even better'. Then synthesizers and samplers started coming forward and certainly, the sampling period with Fairlights was incredibly creative. Then the next big break for me was digital recording, especially in the case of Culture Club where we used a lot of horns and one of the things about horns is print through [which it handled well].

That period, to me, was lovely. You had all of these tools but then you also had the frustration with things like the Fairlight as it wasn't properly polyphonic. The dream of what it was supposed to be is what you can now do with Pro Tools and Logic. My studio, now, is based around a Mac built by Creative Pro in Ipswich, so I have the latest 12-core CPU and I'm not running out of power. I have two UAD cards. I run Logic mainly, Ableton second and Pro Tools third. If you are just purely recording a band and not fiddling then Pro Tools can still be pretty good as it's like a glorified tape machine, but I honestly believe that both Ableton and Logic are more creative if you are just composing in a hard disc environment.

The clue is in the name

I was asked by Aston to be part of the original listening panel for Origin and Spirit, and did the same with the Starlights. I've used the Origin on a multitude of things. It's very good on bass cabinets. I would argue very strongly that in terms of the sound, it stands up very well to a U87 or 47, it really does. The 47 does sound a little better but not £2500 better! When I did some sessions here with some students from LIPA, many of them went and bought an Origin as a result of hearing it on vocals – they couldn't believe how good it sounded.

I've used the Starlights successfully as room mics and they sound absolutely superb. I've got a Marshall 1958 hand-wired cab. It was my treat – an expensive amp for the studio. When a guitarist plugs into that amplifier you can see a smile appear on their face. I had a really great combination on it: an MXL against the cabinet on the left, an Audio Technica ribbon and the Starlights maybe three feet away. It was just a breath-taking sound.

We used them with 'Space' whose album I have just finished and is called 'Give Me Your Future'. We used the Origin and the Spirit as a mono room mic with tons of compression on it. That set-up gave me great options in terms of the sound. We also recorded the bass with a U47, the Origin and a Rupert Neve DI box.

I think that it's fabulous that Aston is a UK brand and more people should manufacture in the UK. You keep the expertise in-house, you employ local people, and with precision building, you're getting a skillset that stays in the UK which is just fantastic. It winds me up that at the House Of Commons they use AKGs. Why not make a point of using British mics? Why is the BBC using Neumanns? They're lovely microphones but you should see British microphones at the BBC. The clue is in the name!

Out-takes

Q. If you weren’t working in music what would you be doing?
A. “I would probably be doing something in science as I love electronics. I'd still love to build products – I think there's still stuff out there that needs building…”

Q. What would your fantasy mic be?
A. “There are so many great mics that you need to do something different. It would be one that captures sound in an unusual way. It would have to have dual capsules – a cardioid condenser and some kind of dynamic – and then on-board processing, like a spring reverb in it so the singer can record their reverb in real time. I'd also like an insert point so you could insert a guitar effect as well. So I'd like Aston to build that!”

Q. What are the 4 words you’d chose to describe Aston, or your experience with the brand?
A. “Brave, understanding, boutique… and you can get them on the phone!”

Q. What song first made you cry?
A. “I was very very close friends with Carl Wilson and when he died I went to his funeral and I cried twice. I heard God Only Knows on the radio after and cried. Gina his wife was incandescent, so heart broken and the song they played when the coffin came in was LeAnn Rimes' How Do I Live? and the entire congregation was in tears.”

Q. Who are your favourite artists?
A. “That's a really hard one, I love so much music I just can't pick any favourite artists. It depends on the day you ask me and what mood I'm in. I love loads and loads of things. I love good music, I love good engineering, good producing and good songwriting. And sometimes those are not always on the same record…”

Credits

Aston gear has been used with the following artists...

Space

XamVolo

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