Steve Ames

-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 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.

Clockwise from left: Mark Poindexter, Frank Hart, Steve Ames, Sam Taylor, Jonathon Marshall and Len Sonnier in center. Photo from the Atomic Opera site.

How long have you been producing albums and how did you get into that role?

I've been producing records longer than I've been engineering them, both over 20 years. Record producing is about imagination, and engineering is about discipline, generally speaking.

I started producing after being a musician in several Texas bands (a long time ago). The first group I produced was the Moving Sidewalks, which featured Billy Gibbons (ZZ TOP) on guitar / vocals. Later I moved into audio engineering. At the time I met Sam Taylor I wasn’t producing very much, mostly engineering and running Rampart Studio in Houston.

What should a band look for when shopping for a producer? Which is most important; credentials, experience with similar music, or attitude?

As far as what to look for in a producer: It depends on the type of music. In rock, alternative, etc., assuming the producer has experience and some credentials, the vision of the producer has for the band is Everything. Bands that want to restrict that are probably not ready for an outside producer. It doesn’t mean the project wouldn’t work without one but they will probably drive each other crazy if they're out-of-sync on that issue.

What is the function of a producer? How important is the producer to the final product?

Once again, it depends on the type of music. In R&B, the producer is sometimes the composer, the music talent and arranger / programmer, etc. In rock and pop stuff the producer is the main coordinator of everything including finding the studio, the engineer, choosing recording formats, etc. Sometimes on independent or unsigned projects the Producer takes over some management duties as well, i.e. finding record labels, distributors, duplicators, setting up showcase events, etc.

As far as importance: In rock stuff the main thing is the right producer with the right artist. It's like a marriage. I've seen great producers with great groups, but they were the wrong combination and it didn’t work at all. But different than a marriage, you have to judge the musical relationship by the artistic efforts achieved, not by how everyone felt about the process. I've worked on projects that were hell to go through but incredible stuff came out.

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?

Well, most studios claim to have the greatest stuff, but once again, it’s the right combination. You don’t want a $700 per day engineer in a $15 per hour studio. And you don’t want an inexperienced producer in a $1500 per day studio either. I think common sense and budgets should dictate the answer.

Usually when a group hires me as an engineer / producer and I find the studio, I save them money. If the band books the studio first, the studio doesn’t find them a producer.

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?

Well, obviously it should be co-operative as a general rule, but arguing with the producer constantly is kinda like arguing with your pilot on an airliner, because you don’t recognize every landmark from your window view. But it's not to say that your producer isn't accountable.

For example, if your producer loses his mind (in a bad way) during the project, you might need to either fire him or hire a therapist (just kidding).

What I like to to do is either do pre-production sessions with the artist and / or go into a studio prior to the main project and record a demo. That way, everyone finds the weak points and what problems may arise ahead of time. It's like going on a camping trip in the back yard first before going to Yellowstone.

When you were working with the 12-string bass for the first time, what type of experiments did you try? What were your first thoughts about the instrument? How do you feel about working with it today?

Wow... The first time I worked with the 12-string bass I thought it sounded great. Then I tried putting it into a mix and I wanted to kill myself (just kidding). The problem is, the 12-string cuts into upper frequencies, sometimes conflicting with the guitars, etc. To make matters worse, on some notes you lose the low end.

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?

We always did lots of combinations of microphones and DI’s on just about everything. And we didn’t do the same thing on every song. I checked my notes recently and found that on one song we had a 4-string bass on its own track, doubling underneath the 12 string. On another song, we used a 4-string with 12-string, but only the chorus and intro.

In your opinion are there any bass amps that work better in the studio than others?

Oh, I suppose it all depends on the project, what the player is used to, and the studio If the monitoring is weird in a studio then I'm nervous about large bass rigs (i.e. 18” speakers) because I don’t know what I'm recording then.

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 the compressor and program content. If I'm using a great $4000 compressor it might sound great on rock stuff, but if all I have is some piece of junk compressor it will probably take away the life of the mix.

Is there one single piece of outboard gear that you particularly liked to use in conjunction with the 12?

With King’s X we were recording analog and with old Urei compressors. But I think vintage mic pre-amps and / or tube compressors would sound great.

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?

Well, the key ingredient was our passion to the project. Everyone was very committed to making great records.

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?

Once you’ve been doing recording for a long time you develop a signature to your work. It's difficult to maintain a great sound and also lose that signature. I think I've done good in recent years to diversify though.

Other than King's X and Galactic Cowboys, are there any other bands that you produced that used the 12 in the studio?

I’ve worked Dave Pomeroy in Nashville. He’s great, with 12-string, 4-string and upright, and different styles too from rock, country, jazz. Amazing!

Have you had many bands come to you and say that they wanted the "King's X" sound?

Some have said, “I like the King’s X sound” but we want, “ this...”. Usually groups don’t want to sound exactly like someone else. Even if they already do. Once I was in Memphis and an engineer came in and played me a recording of, something, and he thought it sounded just like Doug of King's X… it didn’t to me.

Editor’s note: This interview by Philip Snyder with Steve Ames was originally published on April 1, 2004.