Every new Porcupine Tree album sells over a quarter of a million copies. And with founder Steven Wilson in control of everything from songwriting to shrink‑wrapping, there's no middle man to take a cut.
"It's not how luxurious your room is, how good your speakers are or the quality of the acoustic space,” asserts Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson. "It's how well you know what you're hearing, because if you know what you're hearing, you can make good‑sounding records! Many times I've made the mistake of thinking that if I went into a commercial studio with a proper desk and speaker system I would get better results, but I got worse because I had no idea what I was hearing, so I always retreated back to my little box room where I knew exactly how to get results. Anything sounds good in a big studio but the trick is to make it sound good on a shitty system in a shitty room, because that is closer to the way everyone else is going to hear it. If you can do that it will sound good on any system. That's proved to be the case for me over and over again.”
Porcupine Tree's brand of heavy progressive rock might not be to everyone's taste, but few would disagree that they make good‑sounding records. For the most part, these are conceived, written, demo'ed, partially recorded, mixed, and occasionally mastered in the modest home studio of singer, guitarist and founder Steven Wilson.
Up until the summer of 2009, Steven's studio was still in his old bedroom in the bungalow he'd grown up in with his parents — he'd long since moved home himself, but was reluctant to vacate a room he knew so well. Only after 10 studio albums with Porcupine Tree has he finally moved studios, albeit to a room in his new home, a stone's throw from his parents' house.
Steven freely admits that his real passion is recording, not necessarily performing on stage, even though Porcupine Tree are now a major live act. As soon as he became interested in music, he began experimenting with recording, pursuing a fascination with how sound can be warped and processed. "I fell in love with the weird and wonderful sounds I heard on records and wanted to know how to get them,” he explains. "I'm very fortunate to have a father who was an electronic engineer and able to build vocoders, echo machines and multitrack recorders for me. I'd play a record and say, 'Dad, how do you make that sound?' and he'd go off and figure it out.
"We're talking about before the Internet, when I was 12 or 13, so it became a challenge for him to create sounds without outside guidance. He'd always get something a bit wrong, though — for example, he couldn't get the erase head to work on the four‑track, so everything had to be first take. He also built a sequencer, but didn't realise that most music is in four and gave it nine steps, so everything had to be in three, six or nine! But those things became the charm and appeal for me.”
Porcupine Tree started life as a fictitious group, created by Steven to be the public face of a studio‑based experimental project. "I never meant to be a musician at all,” he laughs. "I meant to be a producer/songwriter, or someone who makes records. My love always remained experimenting in the studio, and that's a fairly solitary activity, so learning to play guitar, bass and keyboards and program drums has been necessary to achieve the other thing. I learned to program drums by trial and error and wasn't very good at it. If I'd had musicians around me I would never have had to, but I taught myself well enough to get at least some of what I heard in my head out into the real world.
"I started various projects, some of which are still with us. Porcupine Tree was just another mucking‑about‑in‑the‑studio project but it captured the public's imagination — it certainly wasn't planned. I created an imaginary history around it partly just for fun, but also because I thought nobody would take it seriously knowing it was just me making music in my room. We're talking about the era of bands in the late '80s, early '90s, before the revolution of the geek making records in his bedroom.”
These days, Steven's studio is almost entirely software‑based, so much so that he almost seems embarrassed by its minimalism. "People always ask if they can see or photograph my studio and I say, 'You might be disappointed!' I've gradually got rid of all my outboard and don't even have a mixing desk. I do everything using Logic TDM on a G5. I'm sure if I'd been born 10 years earlier I'd be more of an analogue guy, but I've learned to do things in the digital domain and feel comfortable that way. I love the flexibility of working on the computer, the total recall thing where you can work on a mix incrementally over a period of months. I'm mixing all the time, positioning audio in the track as I'm recording. For me, being able to hear the whole picture as it builds is very important. It's important when you are adding to a piece of music that you know how it'll sound in the mix and don't have to guess.”
Over the years, Steven assembled a team of musicians to form a real band called Porcupine Tree, so now, by the time an album recording is complete, three others have added their contributions. Drums are played by ex‑session man and King Crimson latest recruit Gavin Harrison, synths and pianos by Richard Barbieri, famed for his tenure as Japan's keyboardist, and bass by Colin Edwin. Yet it all still starts life as a fairly elaborate demo, programmed by Steven.
"By the time we start tracking, the structure and tempo are worked out and I've programmed everything I can't play myself,” he explains. "I use soft synths and instruments inside Logic to program drum and bass parts, then play pianos and guitars and sing over the top. I play guitars in through an Apogee Trak 2 preamp and A‑D using amp simulators. That's not to say that I don't later go on to re‑track guitars, but at the demo stage everything goes direct. Then I hand the demo to the band and gradually we replace my feeble attempts.
"The band work on top of that demo, which then ceases to be a demo because a lot of things on it make it onto the finished record. For example, 90 percent of the final vocals are the demo tracks. There is a very good reason for that, which is that when I cut the demo I've usually just written the song and feel closest, emotionally, to its sentiment. If I re‑cut it three months later, I'm no longer in that same emotional state — I'll have listened to that piece of music so many times that I have no emotional connection at all! It simply becomes a technical exercise in making the best‑sounding track. So I've learnt to work from the demo upwards, as the vocal is nearly always impossible to better. And I record things at the highest possible quality because, inevitably, there will be something I cannot recreate.
"These days I also do a tracking session in a proper studio with amps and guitars. On the last Porcupine Tree album I wrote about 35 minutes of music, then we all stayed for a couple of weeks at a residential studio called Monkey Puzzle [in Suffolk] and played it together, one person along each wall facing each other, and used that as a springboard to write more music. We recorded everything at the best possible quality and kept a lot of the stuff that went down on the fly. So it's a mixture of me writing in solitary and the band getting together and working on other material.”
Steven is arguably best known as a guitarist and composer, but his production skills have also impressed a great many listeners. Nevertheless, he is quick to admit that outside the home, where he records vocal and acoustic guitars, he makes full use of the talents of processionals with specific areas of expertise. "I rely on engineers,” he insists. "When it comes to miking guitar cabinets and drum kits, I always work with people who know what they're doing and, in that sense, I think of myself as a producer. I worked with Trevor Horn this year and he's someone who doesn't touch equipment. It was fascinating to see; he just sits and listens! He's a real old‑school producer, but has terrific engineers who do what he needs them to.
"I'm able to articulate what I need, but I can't make that next leap and ask for a particular model of mic or processor. If I don't like what the engineer tries, I'll ask for something else and, for me, that's what a producer should do. He shouldn't be rummaging in microphone cupboards — it's more a question of looking for the sound he hears in his head.”
Long‑time readers of SOS might remember drummer Gavin Harrison's extraordinary home studio when it was featured in October 1999's Readerzone (/sos/oct99/articles/readerzone.htm). He'd just moved into a house with a sculptor's studio at the rear, which he turned into an acoustically treated live space alongside his control room. It is here that the Porcupine Tree drums are recorded before being sent to Steven for mixing. Steven: "Gavin's spent 25 years experimenting with microphones, mic positions, drum heads and all that stuff, so it is an incredible amount of expertise that I couldn't hope to achieve. If it has been recorded well, you don't need to do a huge amount, and that's certainly true of Gavin's recordings — I push the faders up and it sounds pretty good already. I don't add a lot of compression, just a bit of EQ and effect to balance things up.
"Last of all, I go through and try to get better guitar tones. That's not always possible, and sometimes the virtual tones become so integral to the track that they just work. I've never been snobby about using simulations and virtual instruments — if they sound good, use them!”
Surprisingly, for a guitarist, Steven claims that he doesn't know what he's doing with amps, so he travels to Florida and works with John Wesley, who plays guitar on stage with the band. "Wes knows everything there is about recording guitars, so I usually work at his studio for a couple of weeks. Again, I know when I like something and he knows me well enough to tell what I'm looking for, almost intuitively.
"I love PRS guitars and have a fairly large selection, including everything from baritone to 12‑string ones. A guitar I used a lot on the last record is an all‑aluminum model by AlumiSonic which has a singing, sustaining quality. If I'm tracking, sometimes there's nothing like a Les Paul for heavy riffs or a Strat for clean sounds. So I use a bit of everything, really.”
Steven's guitar parts are a mixture of impressionistic sounds created with plug‑ins, and those made using amps and pedals. "I do a lot of stuff where I slow things down or speed them up, then cut it up, throw all the pieces up in the air, metaphorically speaking, and then put them back together again. For example, I'll record a guitar solo, speed it up and fly it back in so I have something that's not necessarily in time, but floats over the top. And often I get wacky effects by chopping solos, making almost random cuts, and then shuffling the pieces. I love to experiment — those weird effects, for me, are what computer‑based recording is all about. You can do those things using tape but it would take weeks!”
For vocals, rather than using a booth, Steven simply sets up his Neumann U87 in the middle of the room, plugged into the Apogee Trak 2 preamp/A‑D converter. "I just put on a pair of headphones and do it there,” he insists. "I use the Apogee's soft limiter to get rid of the real peaks and a 70Hz high‑pass filter for the low end. I don't even compress on the way in.
"For processing, I like the Focusrite D2 EQ [Pro Tools plug‑in]. I do a lot of megaphone‑type vocals, and that's literally just the D2 with an incredibly high low‑pass and incredibly low high‑pass filter, around 2KHz. I also use Focusrite's D3 compressor, the Bomb Factory one, and [Line 6's] Echo Farm for old‑style tape delay type effects, which are transparent and warm in the mix. Occasionally I use reverb — I like [Digidesign's] D‑verb — but I'm not a big fan of it on vocals, I prefer delays, which take up less space.
"A lot of the stuff I use comes free with Pro Tools. I don't feel the need to rush out and buy the latest fancy EQ or compressor because I'm comfortable with what I know and like. Sometimes having all this stuff available is a barrier between you and creating. We have so many possibilities, but in the '70s, which I think is the golden era for album‑based music, they were very limited in what they could do. Because I'm using Logic TDM with the Pro Tools engine I don't have Guitar Rig. It sounds amazing, but seems like one of those things you could spend weeks just learning what it is capable of, whereas I use Amp Farm and SansAmp, which are quite simple and limited, so you can work quickly and get tones that you need.”
Not content with writing, performing, recording, mixing and producing, Steven has also mastered albums, although he admits he's not entirely confident he knows what he's doing! "I did Fear Of A Blank Planet myself, as a consequence of having commissioned a master from an engineer who completely squashed it. We thought, 'This is ridiculous, it sounds good when we send it off, crap when we get it back, so let's just do what we think needs to be done', which was a tiny bit of soft limiting and equalisation. I'm still on the fence as to whether to do things myself or to have professionals do it. I'm certainly not of the opinion that you should make albums as loud as possible, but I do take out those unnecessary peaks that push the volume of the whole album down. So it's a fine line and some people can hear things that others can't. Gavin, for example, can hear when his bass drum is starting to compress much earlier than I can, and I defer to him on that because it's his instrument.”
Porcupine Tree records now sell in huge numbers, but it has taken two decades of hard work to win what Steven calls a slow war of attrition. What's impressive is that, despite being largely overlooked by the mainstream music press, the band are actually selling more records than ever before, even at a time when downloads are killing record sales. It seems that Steven's success is all about providing a superior experience through his music, product packaging and live shows. "The people who listen to my music know that I'm not going to release something just to be commercial or get on the radio. I release records that I believe in, and if you do that, people trust your motives are genuine, so even if they don't always like the music, they're still prepared to listen. Now that progressive rock is no longer a dirty word, we are starting to get more media coverage, but for years it was just people telling their friends. It was never planned or contrived.
"A lot of people are taking music as free downloads, but our following has gone up so much that it creates the illusion that we're not suffering. We're in an age where there isn't this perception that you should have to pay for recorded music, but it's a shame for several reasons. The main thing is that there is no commitment to quality of experience any more, and by that I mean that people are listening to MP3s without artwork. This is the history of the human race — convenience always wins over quality of experience.”
Fighting back, one of Steven's strategies has been to release a large number of limited‑edition products with special packaging, all of which are snapped up by fans. These include DVDs with visuals produced by his filmmaker friend Lasse Hoile, elaborately packaged, limited‑edition books and coloured heavy vinyl editions, as well as Digipak, Digibook and mini‑LP CD releases, all given a consistent visual style by designer Carl Glover. The perfect example of this approach is Steven's ambitious solo album project, Insurgentes, initially released in 2009 as a limited deluxe edition of 4000 10‑inch hardback books containing 120 pages of images and a choice of either four audio CD/DVDs, or four 10‑inch vinyl discs. The expensive packaging paid off, with all copies selling out in advance.
"If you give people something to treasure, they are more inclined to invest their money,” reasons Steven. "The thing about vinyl is that it has an aesthetic quality, like a piece of art, and that's what CD did away with. But vinyl is something really beautiful you can hold and cherish. It makes you feel like you own a piece of art, and good music is art so it should be presented as such. Having generic CDs in crystal cases with four‑page booklets stuffed inside is more like owning a piece of software, so we are seeing the death of generic cases and a return to music presented with beautifully elaborate, aesthetically pleasing artwork, with gatefold sleeves, cutouts and inserts. One of the first albums I bought was ELO's Out Of The Blue, which came with a spaceship you had to assemble. It was cheesy but fun. Record companies have been forced to look at those things to keep people buying physical products.”
Steven is unusual in that he takes responsibility for all the decisions regarding the packaging of his work, insisting that the label's input on such matters is zero. "Record companies are more open to ideas than they used to be, but the special packaging and books come from me, Lasse and Carl. Record companies think I'm crazy when I say 'Can I have this kind of paper?', because they've never had an artist do that, but they are realising that it is not just my silly little self‑indulgence: these are things that fans really care about, and that kind of attention to detail makes it easier to sell physical products.”
For secondary Porcupine Tree releases such as 'unplugged' albums and radio sessions, and for his Bass Communion side‑project, Steven has set up his own Transmission and Headphone Dust labels. "Bass Communion is specialist music that sells directly to people who like that kind of thing, so it is pointless putting it with a record company who are only going sell it mail‑order themselves.
"The frustration with labels is the long setup times. The whole retail distribution chain is very complex, so you have to deliver artwork and masters months before. Of course, it leaks onto download sites, because review copies go to journalists six weeks before release and it only takes one guy to upload it and then everyone has it. You can't stop that, but the thing about making your own CDs is you don't send out any promos. Inevitably it ends up uploaded somewhere, but not six weeks before the release date!”
Steven is living proof that it is possible to retain artistic integrity and still find success in the music industry. He controls every aspect of his work, from the way it is recorded and produced, to its presentation as a physical product or live performance. Yet he is also astute enough to know that the best possible results are achieved by employing talented professionals, whether they be recording engineers, fellow musicians, writers or visual artists. Indeed, all of Steven's work is a collaboration of sorts, even if it sometimes has to be done by proxy. "There is nothing like getting someone in, but sometimes you have to work by mail,” he explains. "For example, Alex Lifeson from Rush was in Canada recording his album when we wanted to record him, so we just sent him the files. But you go to these guys because you know and like what they do, so you tell them to do a few takes of their thing and you then have the luxury of compiling your favourite bits!”
Steven Wilson is in the enviable position of having a great deal of success while retaining control of his own work, but in the early days he had to subsidise his career through commercial music. A golden opportunity came when a film‑maker friend of his asked if he wanted to try doing a Metallica soundalike track for an ad he was working on, because the rights to the real thing were not available. "I'd never made anything that heavy before,” he insists, "but I bought a Metallica album and tried to copy it. It was pretty bad but satisfied the advertising agency, and once you get your foot in the door they keep coming back. In the end I had a reel of stuff, so I registered with an agency and got more work through that.
"The key is to keep your own music free of commercial consideration, and the best way to do that is to not have to worry about money. Commercials paid very well and meant I didn't have to compromise my own music, which remained pure self‑indulgence.
"I stopped about the time we moved labels and the money situation became easier as the back catalogue started to bring in cheques every few months. Not huge amounts, but it meant I didn't have to make music for spoons dancing around yoghurt pots! That becomes a bit soul destroying.”
Although Steven is happy that he no longer has to do commercial music, he still recognises that the experience benefited his production skills. "It taught me a lot about how to record certain sounds that I would never have otherwise recorded, although it's one of those things you don't realise at the time. I did everything from hillbilly music to trip‑hop to death metal to electronica — whatever the commercial company wanted — and I had to figure out how they made that kind of music. So it did become a very good period of learning and appreciating how to create other sounds, not just the ones I wanted in my own music.”