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Old School, New School

Steve Levine has been recreating ’60s soul music without getting hung up on digital v analogue. Instead, he used the best of both.


19 January 2012

’60s Soul in the Modern Age

While nostalgia can be found in all walks of life, the music industry is probably unique in having a substantial population that believes the technology from the past remains better than today’s. No owner of a 1940s Ferrari Barchetta, however enthusiastic, will claim that it’s technically superior to a 21st century Ferrari. But, as we all know, there remain many who claim that the analogue recording format, though admittedly clumsy and expensive, is still superior to the latest digital whiz-bangery. Stronger still, many happy users of digital are increasingly shaking their heads at the degradation of the sonic quality of 21st century music through lossy formats, the loudness wars, the decimation of the studio industry and the corresponding disappearance of the art and craft of studio engineering. Equally illustrative are the swathes of artists from the good old days, many of whom have reached pensionable ages, who are still outselling the younger generation.  

It appears that our society as a whole has a tendency to hanker for music from the past, particularly from popular music’s Golden Age, the sixties and the early seventies, when a change in culture and an avalanche of creativity meant that new artists, new musical directions, classic recordings, and new recording formats fell like manna from heaven. As a result, the desire to go back to and/or relive that era seems almost hardwired. 

One particularly striking recent example came from Phil Collins, who for his 2010 album Going Back re-recorded two dozen sixties and early seventies soul classics as faithfully to the originals as possible. Another example are the recordings recently conducted by British production legend Steve Levine, during which he also tried to recreate the sound of the sixties, though, as we shall see, in rather a different fashion than Collins. 

Levine is not a known member of the analogue, back-to-the past brigade. In fact, he had many of his biggest hits in the eighties with culture club, one of the earliest bands that made it big with a sound based on glossy digital technology; in their case drum machines, synths and sequencing. Levine’s roots do go back to the tail end of the era that his recent project focuses on: he started as a trainee tape-op at CBS studios in London in 1975. He quickly graduated to in-house engineer, working with many British punk and new wave acts, amongst them The Clash and XTC, as well as CBS pop acts that recorded there, including the Beach Boys and Sailor. During the eighties, in addition to producing three platinum-selling Culture Club albums, Levine worked with China Crisis, Ziggy Marley, and Gary Moore, and won a BPI Producer of the Year and a Grammy Award (the latter for his work with Deniece William). Levine remains active as a producer to this day, but the hit songs dried up in the 90s, so he diversified into film scoring, began his own record company (Hubris Records) and radio production company (Magnum Opus), and is currently chair of the Record Producer’s Guild (RPG).


With Magnum Opus, Levine produced a radio series a few years ago for the BBC called The Record Producers, featuring Tony Vinconti, Arif Mardin, Trevor Horn, and many others, as well as a three part series called The Third Reich and Roll about the history of magnetic tape, which, as every child surely knows, was developed by the Nazi’s as a propaganda tool. The Third Reich and Roll was presented by the British actor and media personality Stephen Fry, who in turns is friends with the founder and chairman of Audio Network, Andrew Sunnucks. Audio Network is a fast-growing library of music for film and TV, the company’s twist being that its music is originally composed and recorded, thereby bypassing any licensing issues. When Sunnucks and Levine were introduced to each other by Fry, Sunnucks asked Levine to add some licensable, ’60s-sounding content to the Audio Network library, which surprisingly – given the popularity of 1960s music – hadn’t been made before.

“Andrew was aware of my knowledge of the history of recording and of course also of my background as a producer,” said Levine. “He said to me that Audio Network, as a library music supplier, got a lot of requests for authentic-sounding sixties soul music, but that this threw up several problems. The first one is that it can be very difficult to acquire the rights to use these recordings, and that these rights often turn out to be very expensive. The other problem is that that there are a few recordings that are licensed very frequently and that consequently have a lot of associations for people. Creative directors are always on the lookout for some obscure sixties soul tracks that can bring that sixties vibe but without the baggage of a known song. Plus there are the demands of the modern film editor. So Andrew asked me whether it would be possible for me to record some new songs written in that style and sounding like they are from the sixties. The tracks would have all the advantages of library music in that they would be easy to license and use, but wouldn’t sound like library music.”


For the, er, record, the Nazis developed the use of magnetic tape for audio because they wanted to be able to broadcast Hitler’s speeches, as well as pipe music, at any time, without the Allies being aware that these were recordings. At the end of the war Major Jack Mullin discovered the Magnetophons in Frankfurt and brought them back to the US, where an impressed Bing Crosby decided to invest in a small company called Ampex. The rest, as they say, was yet more history.


Steve Levine is nothing if not fanatical about gear. This much is immediately evident from a look around his London studio, purpose built in his back garden, and from the enthusiasm he displays when showing and demonstrating it. When he stresses that he’s not a snob, he’s not kidding, for even the smallest, cheapest, and seemingly childish piece of kit clearly gives him a thrill, like for example the tiny Korg Monotron synth, which he demonstrated with a great grin on his face, while noting, “It was a Christmas present from one of my daughters. She knows how much I love things like this. It has an external input and she’s aware of how much I love putting sounds through weird things like this!”(laughs). 

And so Levine’s studio is home to a wealth of gear, ranging from the more or less mainstream professional to the weird and wonderful. On the former front there’s an Eventide H3000, Focusrite ISA One and ISA215 mic pres, dbx 165A, a rack of Radial units, and so on. There’s an outboard rack that has a Doppelganger LFO chorus/vibrato pedal, a Palmer PDI-CTC DI box, two low wattage guitar amps, the Jet City PicoValve and the 5W Kustom Defender, and a Lovetone Big Cheese pedal on top of it. Underneath are goodies like a ToneWorks DTR2 tuner, Focusrite Liquid Channel, Palmer Speaker Simulator PDI-03, Palmer ADIG-LB guitar DI, Funk Logic AP 302 Algorhythmic Prosecutor (OK then, this is a fake panel, with Funkerator, Imaginator and Punch switches; probably very handy for use when know-it-all A&R men are in the room), Line 6 Pro, Line 6 Bass Pod, Digitech GSP 2101, Roland GS6, Tascam 24-track. 

Striking is that much of the gear in Levine’s studio is the kind of stuff that musicians would use, rather than an engineer, whether the stacks of guitar pedals he has, or synths, or drum machines, like the original Roland CR78 analogue drum box and the Simmons SDSV drum synthesizer that were both used on the Culture Club records. Other examples are the Roland Rhythm 330, Emulator 4XT, Yamaha EX5R synth, Studio Electronics ATC1 Tone Chameleon, Pioneer SR202W reverb, Kurzweil K2000R, Akai MPD16, Korg M49 and so on, and indeed, on. 

Levine, “The bands that come here love all this stuff. I still have several original pedals from the Culture Club days, and from Boss, and the Danelectro Spring King, lots of classic stuff. I love spending money with boutique designers, like this DualFuzz, which was handmade in the USA. Oh, here’s my Watkins Copicat, which you can’t beat. It’s from the seventies, which is the better model – the sixties ones can be a bit dangerous in the wrong hands. Tape echo is so exciting and creative! And look at this ByrdBox pedal, it takes seconds to set up a classic 12-string sound with it. All these allow you to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. I can’t recommend these Danelectric Cool Cat pedals enough. They average 30 pounds, and they’re fantastic. People become snobs and won’t buy something unless it costs 100s or even 1000s pounds, but I think that these pedals are incredibly good value for money. Having said that, the Big Cheese goes for 5000 dollars on eBay now. And here’s my Mutron. Nobody can get their hands on that! It’s from 1973, and I bought it new in 1990, a time when nobody wanted pedals. It came from stock that had been lying forgotten in a corner of a shop.

“Look at this Korg TP2 Optical dual preamp and compressor, which is really great for putting stuff through and distorting it and then bringing it back in. It has a digital output, so it’s new school meets old school. Another invaluable tool is the Digitech Vocalist Live 5. You plug the guitar and the vocal mic in it, and it works out in real time what the chords are and it creates three part harmony, in real time. I used it when recording Natalie McCool, who is one of my Hubris Records artists, and it allowed us to record a fantastic guitar vocal and guide guitar with guide harmonies, which is essentially the song, and after that we could build all the other instruments and extra layers knowing that we were not wasting our time putting on things that won’t fit. As I said, I love plug-ins, but there is something about the old 8-bit or 12-bit stuff that sounds really nice, and…”

There was no stopping Levine…


Levine jumped at the request, which was nothing if not a wonderful opportunity to combine his production skills and his history of music know-how. “The period we were looking at was the late sixties, but I did not want to make my life too difficult,” said Levine. “So we didn’t set out to make motown recordings, or stax recordings, or atlantic recordings. we rather tried to create a world that we think may have existed, but didn’t. My aim and hope was to record a batch of songs that would sound like undiscovered gems, as if they were coming from a parallel universe. My task was to get the right songs and the right musicians and record them in the right studio with the right gear and microphones. Terry Devine-King, one of the writers at Audio Network, provided me with the songs, and we then set about finding the right musicians. I decided to record them as authentically as possible, so we went to Toe Rag Studios in East London. Its owner, Liam Watson, has dedicated the studio to all things from the past, and has, for example, an old pre-Beatles EMI REDD.17 valve desk from Abbey Road, which we used a lot.”


Toe Rag Studios was founded in 1991 by Watson (also the studio’s resident producer and engineer). The studio is almost exclusively analogue, featuring the REDD.17 desk, which dates from the mid-fifties, several tape recorders, and many vintage mics and outboard units. Toe Rag has been used by quite a few famous producers and artists, most notably The White Stripes, who recorded their 2003 album Elephant there. While Toe Rag may appear an obvious place for Levine to go to, Yvan Bing, the engineer responsible for the remarkably authentic sound of Phil Collins’ Going Back, trod an alternative path. Bing had concluded that recording the album tracks with old equipment would be so impractical as to be virtually impossible. While he did use some choice analogue outboard, most of his efforts went into lo-fi-ing his recordings during the mix, in the box, much of the time with Avid’s Lo-fi plug-in. Bing’s main weapons were his ears and endless AB-ing between the originals, and his and Collins’ new versions. In doing so, his focus was entirely on the result and not on the process. By contrast, it was arguably inevitable that Levine, with his detailed knowledge of the history of recording, would choose to engage with the original process. “I didn’t go down the route that phil collins and his engineer took,” explains levine, “because I wanted to experience how it was to record in those days. People have to remember that when those records were made they were cutting edge. People were not trying to record things badly. The reason Motown records sound distorted is because of the equipment that was used. Also, we take punching in and out for granted now, but punching in and out on an 8-track machine was horrendous, so you’d have to mark on tape, otherwise you could wipe the wrong thing.

I wanted to experience and understand the frustrations and the advantages of the process.

“Through my radio show and the original tapes that Lamont Dozier gave me I found out that in 1965, Motown built their own 8-track machines before anyone else. Stax and Atlantic had 8-track from 1967-8 onwards. The odd thing is that the moment Ampex began building 2-track machines for Les Paul, they immediately began working on an 8-track machine for him, but never made it commercially available, though you could get the parts and there was an 8-track headblock. But in the very early sixties nobody put two and two together. During that time the dominant recording format in the US was 3-track, with the vocals on the middle track and the band either side. That’s how Elvis and Sinatra were recorded. Then they developed Sel-Sync, meaning selective synchronization, which made it possible to overdub on the same machine, rather than use two machines and copy from one to the other. Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit It’s My Party was the first Sel-Sync 3-track recording. The irony was that The Beatles didn’t know about 8-track until later on. The first UK 8-track recording was Tom Jones’ Delilah in early 1968, at Decca’s studio. Out of frustration, The Beatles went to Trident studios to record Hey Jude there in mid-1968, which was their first recording on 8-track.

“One of the things I discovered when doing the Record Producers radio series, particularly in the George Martin episode, was the importance of getting everything that is recorded right, and the importance of premixing. When you listen back to the tape and you notice that the hi-hat is too loud, you can’t fix it in the mix. The drummer has to go back and play it again and hit the hi-hat less loudly. one of the negatives in today’s way of recording is that since things can be fixed in the mix, we don’t make the most of the overdubbing process. But in the past, because of limitations in the number of tracks, they had to premix the backing tracks before doing the next overdub, and the balance of that premix was important because the musicians would dynamically adjust their overdub to what they were listening to, as opposed to the mixer and producer later faking the dynamics in the mix. These sonic changes in a premix impacted the way the musicians played their overdubs. When you play a bit louder during an overdub, it will be a bit brighter and more distorted, and it’s not the same as the mixer pushing up the fader during a mix. Instead of always listening to all the other parts, we’re recording many things in isolation today, and we may have lost something in doing so.”


As chairman of the British Music Producers Guild (MPG), Levine is closely involved in all the issues that affect its members, ranging from the closing down of studios and the lack of places to work, the perceived decrease in sound quality of today’s music, to the difficulties in actually making a living in the current climate. Levine’s own response to the crisis that’s been engulfing the industry is not only to diversify, for example into radio production and his work for Audio Network, but also to have his own studio and his own label, Hubris Records. Some may regard the latter two as a bit old-fashioned, but, says Levine, not quite old-fashioned enough. And, he says, it’s a good thing that may be the way to go for producers.  

“The world of producers has come full circle. Think of the beginning days, for example of Sam Phillips, who was a record producer who also had his own label and was a businessman. I’m actually doing exactly the same more than fifty years later. Many other producers are doing this again. The problem has been and remains the splitting of record sales and music consumption. If you keep saying that record sales are going down, you’re thinking ‘omigod,’ but in fact there are more people listening to music than ever before. They are just not paying for it. That is the problem, and the massive amount of piracy that’s involved, which has to be stopped. There are sites that appear band-endorsed and that offer free downloads. You can’t blame the consumer for that, because they think they are doing the right thing. But filesharing and torrent sites are another thing altogether.”


At Toe Rag, Levine tried to preserve and re-create some of the magic of the old days, using the studios vintage EMI REDD.17 desk, an 8-track Studer A80 with 1-inch tape, and some, er, new microphones. “We used modern versions of old microphones,” said Levine. “Don’t forget that when they used these mics originally, they were brand new. And when you use an old vintage mic today, it won’t sound like it did when it first came out of the box. I often use the ribbon microphones from Audio-Technica, which hark back to that era, and work without any of the problems. I know that they are regarded as a budget mic, but they were perfect for the job. I’m not a price snob. I’ll use whatever works, whether a $10 or a $5000 mic!

“Liam helped me with the engineering at Toe Rag, because he knows his studio really well, and he told me to bring all the mics I wanted. The drums were a completely authentic Gretsch kit from the era, and they rarely took up more than one track in that time. So I recorded the kit with my AT 4080 ribbon mic, and a second old EV bass drum mic on the bass drum, which we didn’t use, going through the EMI desk. The bass went DI via my Palmer PDI-CTC tube DI box straight to tape, because I know that at the time they also often plugged the bass directly into the desk. The guitarist used a 1965 Fender amp which was recorded with my Audio-Technica 4081, via an Altec 1567A mic pre, the piano was recorded with my Marshall MXL V77, which is a modern copy of the Neumann U67 and which I had tweaked, and an SM58.”

Until this point, Levine had followed his desire to “experience and understand the frustrations and the advantages of the process” of the late sixties. But having completed his week at Toe Rag he took a direction that was not dissimilar to the one taken by Yvan Bing with Phil Collins’ Going Back, which meant massaging the recordings in a medium called digital. Levine: “We often only had five tracks on the 8-track tape: kick, drums, guitar, bass, and piano. After we finished recording the basic tracks, I plugged XLR cables into the multitrack, connected those with my Prism Sound Orpheus A/D converter and loaded everything into Logic. The Orpheus worked really well, because it transferred exactly what was on tape. I initially tried to record at 96k, but the computer was hiccupping a bit, so I decided to go for 44.1k/24-bit. After that we added the overdubs, recording things mostly in microphone pairs, and again going via the Prism Sound Orpheus into Logic. The overdubs included percussion and handclaps, recorded with the Audio-Technica 4050 set to omni, and vibes, recorded with an AT 4080. We also added strings, recorded with just two AT 4050s – I like those mics, they are multi-pattern and very flexible – and brass, which I recorded with one AT 4080 ribbon on the trumpets and one AT 4081 ribbon on the saxophones, and backing vocals, which were again recorded with the AT 4050 mics, set on cardioid. We recorded 12 songs in total and worked quite fast – everything was done in a week. I’d like to add that the room at Toe Rag was very important, because it sounds great!”

Steve Levine (above) in his room giving his Korg Monotron a blast. His personal batcave brings together 30+ years of life in the studio… from ‘70s Roland proto-drum machines featured on the likes of Culture Club’s hits to the Focusrite Liquid Channel (one of Steve’s favourite preamps, with a host of sophisticated modelling onboard); obscure stomp boxes and more.


The next stage of the project saw Levine retreating to his home studio with the Logic files, where he combed over them, and also overdubbed the lead vocals. He explains, “I recorded the two lead vocalists with my AKG 820 mic, going into the Focusrite Liquid Channel, because it is a combination of a hardware mic pre with software emulation of certain mic pres and compressors – I wanted to use the emulations of old tube gear – and also using my Summit Audio TLA 100 compressor. After that it was a matter of going over everything and spending a few days on premixing, and I then took a couple of days to mix all songs. I could use similar settings for each song, because the compression and EQ on the drums and other instruments would have been similar for each song. The sonic differences between the songs were in the performances, not in the gear, and I wasn’t trying to redo everything in the mix. It wasn’t like I had blue and wanted red. If I had blue, it was because I wanted blue, though maybe a slightly darker shade of blue, but that would have been all.

“I work here between my Logic screen and the Studio Manager 2 screen, which is the graphic interface for my Yamaha DM2000 desk. My main monitors are the Yamaha MSP12 and Neumann KH120, and I also use the XKeys for easier access to certain key commands in Logic. The work on the project here was a combination of using plug-ins in my Yamaha DM2000 desk and plug-ins in the computer, with a little bit of outboard. The DM2000 has its own plugins, because it has so much DSP power, which came in very handy. I didn’t actually use that many plug-ins, mainly just things like the PSP Vintage Warmer, the UAD A800 tape emulation plug-in and the Yamaha Open Deck, which allows you to crunch the whole mix. But that was mostly it, because I spent all the time making sure the recordings were done right.

“These days many things are over-egged and sound too hi-fi and too bright. I hear about people putting 50 plug-ins on a track, and I wonder what they are trying to achieve. people are putting on endless things hoping for some magic to happen, without knowing what they want. I think it’s also a case of getting so close to something that you can hear details no-one else can. I don’t dismiss plug-ins, I love them and they certainly often sound better from a technical point of view. Instead I prefer to focus on making sure the tones of the band fit together, as I did with this project. The choices of instruments, of amplifiers, of pedals and so on all colour the sound much more effectively than plug-ins or an EQ or whatever. I was trying to make that everything remains as authentic as possible. I’ve finished mixing, and at the moment Christopher Brooke, the Audio Network mastering engineer, is doing his homework!”


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