From King's X to the Moons of Jupiter
-Wilde Silas Tomkyn?...hum?!
Any true fan of King's X will instantly recognize these words. They are a signature of sorts... a representation of the work of producer Sam Taylor and engineer Steve Ames. Sam and Steve have been in the business for many years... even preceding their ground-breaking work with King's X. They influenced and molded the sonic qualities that would forever be recognized as the early King's X sound and, with the band, they forged the first four King's X records and laid some of the groundwork for what would eventually become the grunge movement.
Along with King's X they worked with bands such as Galactic Cowboys and Atomic Opera. Much of their unique production stylings can be credited to their location... Houston, Texas. Away from the hot-bed of L.A., where so much of the music of the day was being produced, they were able to avoid the cookie-cutter sound that saturated the airwaves and present their bands in a new and interesting light.
We are very pleased to have the honor of presenting these interviews here at 12stringbass.net. It's not often that one gets the chance to talk to both producer and engineer of such monumental records. We would like to thank Sam and Steve for their support and interest in what we're doing here.
How long have you been producing albums and how did you get into that role?
I began working with a few avant-garde songwriters playing piano on demos in Nashville in the mid-70’s. No one on the sessions had a ‘big picture’ concept. It seemed easy for anyone to suggest ideas when the musicians were stuck (usually from finding the part they thought worked was obviously misaligned when they were able to hear it back). I had an instinct for lack of a better word, probably from my years of arranging and jamming from my early teens, so I suggested and eventually other songwriters and musicians liked my ability to arrange and get a project completed, especially on budget. Making a record is a high-wire circus act, balancing talent, time and money. And there is no substitute for experience.
What should a band look for when "shopping" for a producer? Which is most important; credentials, experience with similar music, or attitude?
In choosing a producer, most bands have little choices, at least until there is a budget, and then most bands' choices are based upon advice from other people (managers, A&R execs, a friend in another band who recorded with Willie Fred – all with their own agenda). And most of the time the “experienced bunch’s” advice is akin to a major league baseball team’s concept of finding the best shortstop. (Look at the stats!) Obviously writing stats (records produced, record sales, awards etc.) down on a page can be a starting point, then running at them. And the more in demand the producer – the more expensive. All that aside – once a band has a chance to actually talk to a producer they are considering, the most important aspect is a sense of chemistry and common artistic vision. It also helps when young artists recognize, “How much do I not know about this?” Ultimately, it’s a blind date that leads to at worst a short marriage, at best to a hit record!
All heavyweight producers / mixers get the cherry picking from all the great labels and A&R guys. What most young bands don’t realize is that the track record of these guys is between 5-7% success. We simply just don’t hear about their failures because the success of the few override the many. In fact, in this industry 3% of the acts make 97% of the money!
What is the function of a producer? How important is the producer to the final product?
When I was just a studio musician I discovered that there are two types of producers, much like the two types of labels: promotion-driven and artist-driven. The promotion-driven producer looks at a band based upon how it will help his career and pocket book. His choice is based upon that, and frankly that alone. If he likes the act – that’s a plus – but not necessary! Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with art but everything to do with commerce. Therefore this producer-type tends to be about the finished product and ‘hit’ at all costs, including doing whatever it takes to make a sell-able recording. This may mean you (the artist) not even playing on your recording (and maybe even not singing! – Milli Vanilli!)
The artist-driven producer will sacrifice all the good financial and career counseling to risk his career for the art he wants to help create. This producer usually is a musician where the promotion-driven producer rarely is. This producer usually gets personally involved in the lives of the artists he works with, therefore acts as friend, confidant and mentor, and usually is extremely sensitive to the varying abilities of the various artists in the bands and has a calling to enable them to reach their potential. But this producer should also have an ability to guide a project to a point where it is commercially viable. All this said, the importance of the producer is critical, if for no other reason: Objectivity. As artists, we all become more self-indulgent left alone and without accountability, which is why our art is unique. But it is also why our art can become inbred and deformed, most of the time without our knowing it. Whether an artist is drawn to the promotion-driven producer or the artist-driven producer, he should trust their objectivity.
Does a studio need to be equipped with the latest, most expensive gear in order to produce an album that can compete with the major studios? Should a band be willing to pay more for studio time for access to the latest 'toys' or should they be paying more for the experience of the people running them?
Judge a studio by the consistency of the finished product. Ask to listen to a myriad of current finished projects. Then find out the variables: engineers, producer, musicians involved. Find the combination that represents what speaks to the you as being what you would like your product to represent. I have cut records in the most expensive studios and in demo studios. Sometimes the band dictates the studio. Band X (not the real name) on a major label wanted to record in a studio that technically hadn’t produced a major recording although they had great vintage gear. The choice was because it was close to their home and cheap. Honestly, it tied my hands. Being an artist-driven producer, I acquiesced… and spent most of the time trying to re-invent the wheel. Suddenly when it came time to mix the management and label found additional money; they spent more on the mixer and the top of the line West Coast studio than they did on the recording. Advisors!?
Joe Hardy, an engineer (producer) from Ardent Studios – Memphis (one of my favorite studios in the world) told me in the early 1970's that there are only four things that can be done with a sound! It took the mystery away. From that point on I realized that it is about content (songs) and then expression (sounds). Most engineers are only interested in expression. Pop radio and McDonald’s obviously back up this commercial concept. Recently I did a project that I recorded at Palmyra Studios in Palmer, Texas (owned by Bonnie Raitt’s soundman, Paul Middleton). Palmyra is an analog studio with a great sounding live room! The board is a 1969 Neve 8038 from Abbey Road in London. The tracks were wonderfully rich and open. The artist had one track recorded at a ProTools room in another state that he wanted included. The ProTools recording had digital distortion on all the tracks and was obviously recorded with compression plug-ins. I couldn’t undo the distortion and spent 2 days trying to polish the sound to match the Palmyra sessions. In the end it couldn’t be done. The Palmyra sessions showed the glaring deficiency of the other recording. It would have been cheaper for the artists to re-cut. In it’s own context the ProTools recording was acceptable, but not in context with the better sounds of Palmyra. The artist also had fallen in love with the idea of his recording and insisted on having the track on his record. I advised against it, but acquiesced. After all, it is his career, his name is on the front of the record cover.
All that to say, (within his budget) an artist should find a studio that makes great sounding recordings to his ears, assemble the team (if possible) that contributed to recordings he likes and probably most importantly, bring great songs! If the artist doesn’t have great sounding studio quality equipment, then use the studio's. Live gig instruments most often aren’t studio-ready. I have spent many an hour trying to find the sweet spot in the control room where an artists’ favorite Tele’s single coil doesn’t scream with a high frequency and the old cool amp doesn’t buzz! Also, just because it is old – doesn’t make it good! There were pieces of crap made in the 60's and 70's that most self-respecting musicians wouldn’t even play then! It’s humorous sometimes to see a young gun walk in with one of these and tell me it is vintage. Yes! A vintage POS!
Do you see the producer / artist relationship as co-operative or adversarial in nature? If the artist has a different vision than the producer about how a piece of music should sound how do you resolve the conflict?
I am a firm believer that you can’t get too prepared for the studio. Work out parts – all of them – ahead of time. Use the studio for getting great sounds and executing parts. It’s a lot more fun, fast (Keep a swift pace, and don’t second guess yourself! Remember it’s music, which is emotion, not science!) and so much more economical! Also see my last answer about the relationship. For the promotion-driven producer, I believe if you have chosen him for that reason, you should always follow whatever he says. Don’t confuse yourself into believing it is a collaboration. You have hired him to make you money, not art, so get out of the way!
The sound of a 12-string bass covers a wide frequency range and can easily overpower the guitars and other instruments. What specifically can be done in recording and mixing to achieve a proper final mix?
Record it properly, at least with two tracks; one for the low end (possibly direct through an 1176) and one for the high end (possibly an amped signal i.e. Mesa Boogie). I like to “re-amp” signals. This works best with direct recordings. It allows me to send the signal back to an amp and mic it. The signal is instrument level and sounds as if the instrument is being played live through the amp. This gives me options: AC30, Ampeg SVT, Ampeg Fliptop, Hiwatt etc. It's also good for pedal outboard devices.
After you get a great sound (which may be achieved after tweaking in the mix after you deal with the other instruments) I generally move the guitars as far away as possible in the panning. EQ-ing a distorted instrument sound is like trying to make a distinction between various hues of one color. When you concentrate only on that color you can easily see the variation, but often when you see the whole picture he just looks blue! In most bands it isn’t an option to not have one of the instruments in the band play on a song. It’s a given that 'we have 2 guitarists’ and therefore they must play on this song. Add the 12-string bass with a Tube Screamer and wham… there isn’t any definition in the mids! Someone has to go - too much blue! So get creative and remember, it’s about the whole picture, not the mid-range and who gets to supply the mid / high end distortion through the Marshall.
REMEMBER: You may have 170 tracks recorded, but they all end up in a stereo array heard by only 2 ears!
When you were working with the 12-string bass for the first time what were your first thoughts about the instrument? What types of experiments did you try? How do you feel about working with it today?
I was suspect! Doug Pinnick was always into something new. He had a knack for being on the forefront – an experimenter! This was good and bad. Sometimes he didn’t know when to leave something alone. But to his credit, he really did understand the use of the 12-string in the power trio setting (which I think is it’s calling!) Unfortunately, Ty Tabor wasn’t nearly as experimental nor open to the idea of giving up the domain of his guitar distortion. Of course, Doug’s sound was already up there in that EQ spectrum, but once the 12 came in it took over in the mix. Live, this was wonderful. When Ty soloed, there would be this great big sea of coolness underneath! In the studio, since the bass sat in the center of the mix, I had to create space for the guitar solos by using subtle slightly out-of-time dual delays panned hard left and right, which I also used on the vocals. (I usually dislike reverb in rock records, it washes out the presence for me!) But in the rhythm parts, it was a frequency fight – to make it not sound like a dull mid-range of distortion – so Ames and I tweaked and tweaked until we found that slight space, a trade-off of definition and power: kind of a deep blue next to a deep purple! Sometimes it worked better than normal, sometimes it didn’t!
I did find that I had to have Doug record a 4-string under it to have as much bottom as we needed. Ames looked at me with a horror when I first suggested that we double the bass! Doug was always such a remarkably consistent player that he doubled the 12 perfectly. (As a singer – Doug had a natural flange when he doubled – and he insisted on not listening to his first pass - which is why there’s very little doubled lead vocals on Doug!)
As time progressed and you became more familiar with the 12 what recording set-up did you feel best captured the sound of the instrument without invading the sonic space of the other instruments?
Tri-amped (high, mid and low-end signals) and doubled the bottom with a 4-string (direct for definition) and then tweaked… see above.
Are there specific microphones that work best when recording bass tracks? Do you ever DI the bass or do you feel an amplifier is an integral part of the sound?
I like the option of a DI and amps. Mics that sound good on kick drums usually sound good on bass amps, although I have used a Telefunken U47. I usually DI through a 1176. I have tried other things but it seems to always come back to it! Interestingly, in the mix stage, there are UAD 1176 plug-ins that sound very close to the vintage models, which I use if I mixing in the digital domain (Nuendo – my choice)
In your opinion are there any bass amps that work better in the studio than others?
For low-end: I like Ampeg SVT's. The Fliptops are great too. I have also had success with Vox AC 15’s and 30’s. For high end, any great guitar amp will work.
Many producers will over-compress the final mix to achieve maximum volume. What are your thoughts on this compression / dynamic range trade-off?
It depends on whether you end up at a great mastering studio. Those cats have the best compressors for ultimate loudness and transparency! If you are going there, leave plenty of room for them to do their job! Unfortunately everybody wants it to sound like a radio record before that stage, so the plug-ins can do a nice job, if you know what you are doing! Digital distortion compressed is a nasty thang made nastier!
Is there one single piece of outboard gear that you particularly liked to use in conjunction with the 12?
You have been credited with crafting the original King's X sound for record. How would you describe the overall sound of those early records to someone who hasn't heard them before? As far as engineering, what would you say is the most important sound element of those recordings?
Doug and I kicked the term around, "Heavy Melody"! The sound actually came about by the freeing of the passions of each of them and my kind of putting it in a safe and protected place to ferment along with my love for great songs and the blending of the human voice! I told them early on that they were a three-piece with a singer, but if everyone sang, suddenly it would be a 6-piece – think of the options! They all loved great bands with great vocals – Zeppelin, Beatles, Sly - I just gave them permission to make music we liked! Of course, Jerry and Ty didn’t enjoy how much work it took to start singing. It did take work, a tremendous amount of it! But they did it, and when after the first sessions they begin to think I wasn’t punishing them because I liked it. I have seen Doug refer to me as a taskmaster or something as such. I guess I was, and it worked, and while we worked together – they like the result! Anything worth anything takes work, otherwise everybody would be doing it! It also helps to have an objective party saying where the line is we are shooting for. That’s why artists can’t produce themselves to excellence – but that’s just my opinion!
Is there one example of the 12-string bass in a song that you produced of which you are particularly proud?
The song FAITH HOPE LOVE off the album with the same title!
Do you remember what the recording set-up for that track was? What bass was used?
I believe it was tri-amped with doubled 4-string DI-ed!
Outside of producing King's X you also worked with Galactic Cowboys and Atomic Opera. There is a consistency in the sound of those records that is readily identifiable. Was that done on purpose or did that just happen naturally?
It wasn’t intentional… but the latter were obviously influenced by the King's X. The similarity is probably most in the vocals and harmonies. The riffs are also somewhat derivative, but then again we were all so close to where we were, we thought that 12 shades of blue was really something different. And it was for us… it was still just blue to most everybody else!
Other than King's X and Galactic Cowboys, are there any other bands you produced that used the 12 in the studio?
Not so far.
Have you had many bands come to you and say that they wanted the "King's X" sound?
(Jack Joseph) Puig mixed a record I produced and at first we danced the ‘I’m cooler than you’ dance – which I though was very silly! He was mixing another band in the meantime and apparently mentioned my project and they recognized my name from King's X! The next day Puig was my buddy and wanted to know the secret to the bass sound! Apparently this band wanted their record to sound like that and Puig wasn’t hip to the recordings, hence he hadn’t a clue as to how to get it. We became friends that day!
You play a variety of instruments in your band The Moons of Jupiter. Has being on the other side of the board changed your perspective on recording?
It still is changing from a standpoint of what works, which is generally less parts that are better constructed! Fletch Wiley (another friend, producer and mentor) gave me some great recording advice: “Sam, you never finish – you just stop!” These days, with unlimited tracks in the ProTools / Nuendo world of recording, it’s hard to know when it’s soup! It’s also the nature of a musician to play, not stop playing! As a producer, I have had to learn when to stop – to know how to help the artist stop and know it’s OK!
Editor’s note: This Philip Snyder interview with Sam Taylor was originally published on April 1, 2004.