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Steven Wilson: Remixing Classic Albums

Improving On Perfection
Published January 2019
By Tony Bacon

Steven Wilson in his home studio.Steven Wilson in his home studio.Photo: Lasse Hoile

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."

Five Steps To Audio Heaven

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...

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Published January 2019