Prog-rock wunderkind Steven Wilson is using his studio skills to give legendary rock albums a new lease of life.
"The equivalent of polishing the Sistine Chapel, that's what I feel I'm doing sometimes with these classic records." Steven Wilson is talking about his remixing work, which he began in 2009 as a sideline to his very successful career as a musician and producer. So far, he's polished classic records by King Crimson, Roxy Music, Jethro Tull, Yes, XTC, Tears For Fears and more, creating new stereo and 5.1 surround mixes that have been generally praised by fans and critics.
He says this sideline has grown to take up maybe a fifth of his working life, and has recently developed a laptop setup that means he can do much of his remixing during otherwise dead time on his extensive tours. So far this year, he's played over 60 concerts in Europe and North America, with a further 60 or so slated toward the end of 2018 and into 2019 in Japan, Australasia, North America and Europe.
"If I've got a couple of days off in a hotel and time to kill," Wilson says, "I can load up an album remix project and start to piece it together. I can't create definitive mixes, and obviously I can't do the surround mixes, but I can do a good 60 percent of the work sitting in a hotel or dressing room: editing, compiling, getting basic balances, figuring out stereo placement on the original mixes. So although I'm busier than ever in my own career, I'm managing to maintain the remix work too. I'm becoming more selective about what I take on, though, because I'm in the fortunate position of being offered more and more projects. But then I've only ever wanted to remix things that I have an affinity with, whether it's an album I grew up listening to, or one that I can genuinely say I love — and with nearly all the projects I've taken on, both are true."
A typical Steven Wilson remix goes through five stages. First, he receives a commission from a record label or a management company; the choice of album is often connected to a meaningful anniversary, or to an artist gaining new rights to their back catalogue, or a back catalogue being acquired by a different label.
Next, the commissioning company locates the relevant multitracks, which is not necessarily a straightforward task. "For example, at one point I was asked if I wanted to remix the back catalogue of a legendary rock band, but they just couldn't find enough of the tapes," Wilson says. The other factor here is fiscal: every visit to the tape library or archive is usually at a cost to the company. When the tapes are located, they are baked, directly transferred to 96kHz, 24-bit digital files, and supplied to Wilson as a complete set of raw WAV files. "So if there's 10 minutes of test tones on the tape, I'll get that," he explains, "or if there's 10 minutes of silence at the end of the reel, or of the band tuning up, that will also be part of what I receive."
The number of files he gets matches the number of tracks on the tape. "So I might get eight files, 24 files — or, in one case, 72 files," he adds with a smile. He also gets scans of the tape boxes, where available, as sometimes they can reveal useful information about which takes were used and so on.
The third step is to listen to what's been transferred from the multitrack reels in order to identify the master take. This often long process can be a mixture of revelation, as when he discovers unreleased material, for example, and tedium, such as listening to the band going through 27 false starts or mis-takes. "Sometimes there can be multiple takes that were compiled to create the finished master," he says. "So you might find a particular master is half of take five and then the second half of take 12, and then it might cut back to take five for the last four bars — whatever it is. So at this stage I'm figuring out what the master takes are. I then compile a session where I have all the right takes. You've still done no treatment, no balancing, no editing, no stereo placement, nothing like that. But at least now you have all the master takes compiled and ready for mixing."
Even more close listening follows, as Wilson lines up the original stereo mixes to compare them with the master-take multitracks. This is a slow, painstakingly intense part of the process. "I start listening to 10, 15 seconds at a time, and it'll be 'Oh yeah, the guitar's muted for those first four bars of the second verse, so I need to do that in my session.' Then I'll listen to the next 10 seconds, and 'Ah, OK, there's a phaser been added to the hi-hat there.' And so on through each song."
Usually, Wilson is dealing with detailed pieces of work, where the texture of individual sounds and their presence and location is just as important as any other constituent of the classic recording in question. "Some of these mixes were real works of art," he says. "They'd spend a couple of days, and there'd be three or four of them, all on the faders, bringing phasers in, bringing reverbs in on particular words, panning things left and right, riding solos or phrases in and out, that kind of thing. So listening on headphones and identifying all of these mix moves and where things have been muted or taken out of the mix maybe for a few bars — all of that takes the most time. That's the detective work. And it's so easy to miss things without full concentration."
Finally, Wilson reaches the point where he can actually remix the track whilst remaining true to the artist's original vision: he stresses that his stereo remixes provide an enhanced version of the original and not a wholly new experience. His task to this end is often made easier by the clarity and exposure that the original multitracks can reveal, and then it's a case of making adjustments only...
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