Steve is happy to program elements of the recreated track where he feels that approach will deliver the best results, but he prefers to use real players where possible. "Sometimes it starts with the sample library for strings or brass and depending on how convincing I can make them, they might stay. But most of the time I'll bring in session players for the parts. Nothing beats the real thing. Over the past 13 years I've established a really solid group of players that I can always count on for this, and that makes my job so much easier. I say 'job' but it's really just a super-geek hobby I get paid for! With Dropbox, many of my sessions will be done remotely while I Skype in to help guide them through. After working with some of the musicians for so long, there's no need to be there as they know exactly what to do. My studio is a personal studio, so I rarely ever do sessions here.
Steve Ouimette: "Singers are by far the hardest, because it's all about DNA. I can't plug them into a different amp to make them sound more like Ray Charles.
"Most of the time I focus on the performance from the other musicians, because that's what I need the most from them. It's a bonus if they're also engineers and if so, we'll have long, gear geek talks about how it was done and they'll do their best. If they're not, I always just as for the cleanest take possible. That way I've got a great starting point and can start processing on my end to get the tones to match."
Good session players can handle a variety of styles, but there are sometimes elements of the original track that are instantly identifiable, and can only be replicated by a specialist. That is most often the case with the lead vocal. "Singers are by far the hardest, because it's all about DNA. I can't plug them into a different amp to make them sound more like Ray Charles. Then again, there's Pete Peterkin, and that guy sounds so close to Ray it's unbelievable!
"I'll look for tribute bands or singers in tribute acts and watch their videos. Most of the time they look more like the singer than sound like them, but every now and then one of them will be very close. A few years ago I saw a video of Marc Martel doing a Queen track and he was an incredible Freddie Mercury. When it comes to other musicians being able to sound like specific musicians, it's nearly always on a case-by-case basis."
As a guitarist himself, Steve handles most of the six-string work in his own studio. Recreating guitar parts from old records isn't only about gear and recording techniques: it's also about playing styles. "I work very hard on my parts to incorporate as many elements of the original performer as possible. Tone, equipment, technique, strings, picks, age of strings, and on and on. You can go down the rabbit hole very quickly on these things.
"One technique that's really fallen out of favour is vibrato. Somebody once told me it was the easiest way to spot a geezer: just look for the vibrato and the guy has to be old because nobody does it any more. I don't know if that's necessarily true, but it is one thing I have to be aware of because various vibratos just scream a particular era. Also, playing with a thin pick for rhythms, and playing with no pick at all.
"A good example of going off the deep end in terms of trying to match an original sound would be when I played the classic guitar part of the 007 theme for a game that Richard Jacques was the composer on. I recorded the Vic Flick guitar part here in my studio with an old tube DI and then sent the track over to him at Abbey Road where they reamped it in the same room as the original recording using the house Vox AC‑15 amp! Sounded just like the original."
Steve's mantra of using the real thing where possible applies to guitar gear as well as to sample libraries. "There are so many incredible amp sims out there. I use all of the Mercuriall Audio sims and have owned Axe-FXs and a Kemper, but I always go back to the real thing when I can. For the past year I've been using a UA OX Amp Top Box for all of the really loud amps, since my studio is a one-room studio with no iso booth. That thing is so good! It's perfect for the Marshalls, Traynors, AC30 and big Fender amps. When it doesn't require the big guns, I've got a really cool stash of killer vintage combos that come out to play."
When it comes to mixing, the convenience of plug‑ins trumps the authenticity of hardware. "I got rid of all my outboard gear a few years ago, aside from my mic pres. Because I need total recall for sessions, it was the only way to go and keep my sanity. For years I used tons of outboard gear and while it was a lot more like making a record, it didn't have a good workflow for revisions.
"Back when we were doing Guitar Hero, Ryan Greene had Crush Studios here in Scottsdale [Arizona] with an SSL J-series board and a ton of outboard. Man, nothing sucked more than getting the mix feedback and looking over the notes of the setup for the board, the 480L, all of the external processing, etc. And then we'd have to bounce the stems in real time. Took forever. So for as long as I've been able to, I use emulations of the original gear. My main set is UAD, Waves, Softube, NI and Eventide for the most part. They've gotten so good that it's tough to tell the difference at times."
Where Steve knows what gear was originally used, his starting point will usually be a plug‑in emulation of that processor. Often, though, that information isn't available, in which case it's a question of 'whatever works': "There are times when it's totally not the piece of gear that they used, even though the end result works great in the track. You never know. It's like putting a puzzle together."
Prior to the mid-'60s, records were often made with the band tracked live on the studio floor. This is sometimes an option for Steve, but often he needs to deliver isolated stems for the main instruments, so recreates the effect artificially. "That's probably one of the most difficult things to do. Everything mixed together in the air of the room, and the players played off of each other very differently than if it were all overdubbed. One thing I've found is using Softube's Console 1 as well as Studio One's Mix FX can really help glue the elements together. Because you can have track bleed, you end up processing a little bit of the adjacent track with the one that you're currently processing. Another thing that helps is using a single reverb or room simulator. Many of the older records were recorded in studios where the only effect was an echo chamber, or perhaps a plate reverb."
Recreating old hits is hard to do well — but it's also possible to do it too well. "I have been hit with copyright claims from Harry Belafonte's publisher saying that I posted his track on my SoundCloud page. That got me a strike. But it's a strike that I wear with a certain amount of pride!
"Most of the time the listeners can tell it's a cover. People's ears are pretty sharp, especially when you get into classic music territory. One slight deviation will reveal it's not the real thing. Imagine how many times somebody has heard 'My Sharona'. I once got flack from Poison fans that thought Brett Michael sang over my backing track on Guitar Hero, but in reality it was an amazing singer named Brody Dolyniuk who did the track with me. I was mad that they didn't think I was the rest of Poison! And I never let Brody live that down.
"There have been times where I was finished with a track and the publisher felt it was too close to the original, so I'd have to go back and make certain changes sometimes specific ones at their request. But most of the time the re-record version, no matter how close it is, will be different from the original. I'll be the first to admit that the magic is always in the original. I'm just doing my best to fill a need for my clients and having a blast in the process."
Steve Ouimette has recreated over 250 hits for use in video games. Asked which ones caused him the most trouble, he replies: "One that was incredibly difficult was Backstreet Boys' 'Everybody'. I mean, come on, have a heart! Max Martin? That was such a dense track that my secret weapon was a guy that used to have a friend that worked at Cheiron. He helped me sort through all of the various pieces of gear that they had as a staple back in that era. Turned out I had a lot of it because I once worked for a company that bought E‑mu Systems and they had given me this gear — Vintage Keys, Morpheus, Procussion, etc — as part of my employment. Never thought I'd use them again but there they were! Once again, information and research is the best way to solve many of these problems.
"What else? Getting Ray Charles' voice to sound right took a lot of work not because of the singer, but because of the tape overload on a particular track. I ended up running the track through an old cassette multitrack machine to get it crunchy like the original. No plug‑in could do it in that case I had to overload tape somehow, and I didn't have an original tape machine that matched theirs."
Many well-known hits are far from perfect, either in terms of performance or recording. Deciding how faithfully to recreate these blemishes can require delicate judgement on Steve Ouimette's part. "Once you start listening to a song with a critical ear rather than for the joy of it, a lot of various issues can tend to pop up. I've never covered Zeppelin before, but if I did, the print–through on 'Whole Lotta Love' would be a must to duplicate as it's so embedded in our mind's ear over all of these years. But when it comes to flubs, or issues that happened when 'all hands are on deck' for a manual mixing session, I tend to make them sound more or less 'correct' these days.
"In the past I would try to duplicate mistakes and bad punches, etc, but they ended up sounding forced and contrived. As much as I can try to blend, smear, mask or glue together what a ton of outboard gear, tape and a particular mixing console sounded like, these days with the clarity and precision of our DAWs it's very hard to make something sound like an honest mistake or bum note without it standing out too much. Believe me, I wish I could do it, but I haven't found a convincing way yet. And I'd pretty much guarantee that if those artists, mixers and producers would have had the tools we have today, you wouldn't hear those issues in those classic recordings. I mean, listen to anything modern and show me the mistakes, if it was recorded professionally."