Steve King has recorded Aretha Franklin, The Winans, George Clinton, The Dramatics, Sponge, Was (Not Was), 50 Cent and Eminem [Marshall Mathers]. Here's his story, or part of it, from green recruit to grizzled veteran.
In the early '80s Steve played bass with The Pigs, a punk band that was signed by Tann-Fagenson Productions [Don Fagenson later became known as Don Was]. "We were signed for two years, back when The Sex Pistols were big. We did the Motor City Review — a tour of Boston, Philadelphia and New York [CBGBs] with two other bands. We did a couple of 8-track sessions. Don let us take the 8-track home. That's how I got the recording bug. Then he called a session at Sound Suite [Studio in Detroit] — they were going to record one of our songs for a single. That was the first pro studio I was in. As soon as I walked in the control room I knew what was up. I just had to figure out how to do it.
"A few years later a friend said, 'Don's looking for some help at the studio.' He had the studio from midnight to ten in the morning. So I'd work midnights with him and I'd usually fall out on the couch over there. If they needed an engineer for the day session they'd wake me up, put some coffee on and I'd be in there with The Four Tops or Aretha Franklin. I was scared to death when I started working with Don. It was all pretty scary and I took it very seriously. Eventually I pretty much learned how to align every kind of tape machine — Studer, MCI, Otari. The other thing back then was the noise reduction — Dolby A, Dolby C, dbx — they all had different sounds. Barney Perkins [Anita Baker, Steely Dan] showed me how he wanted all the stuff set up — I was his Detroit assistant. It was scary, but fun. We were doing dance mixes for Quality Records in Canada, Was (Not Was) stuff and Don was starting to break as a producer. Floy Joy from England came over, a lot of Virgin Records acts, David Lasley — one of James Taylor's background singers, The Bar-Kays. This was '83 or '84 through 1990. Don was totally hands on. Sometimes he'd take things to New York and have Frank Filipetti or Michael Brauer do the final mixes.
"Then Don moved to NY and I followed him there with a project we were doing. We lived with the band we were recording. It was super exciting. I remember that whole feeling — part anxiety of wanting to learn things and do everything right and part anxiety of people looking over your back and maybe thinking they can take your job. But I guess that happens everywhere. I got to work with a lot of great people — Stanley Clarke, G.E. Smith. We were doing a Mitch Ryder session, a remake of Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone.' The Hall & Oates band was in town so we invited them over to the studio. Maintenance was low at that particular time — there was no button on the record. So I was using a tweaker, the thing that I used to align the machines with, [to trigger the record button]. Those guys got the biggest kick out of that. We recorded at The Hit Factory and Philip Glass' [The Looking Glass] Studio. Another was a place on the 18th floor of a building — Calliope, on 8th Ave. The board was facing this big window and you could see the Empire State Building. I was assisting, but kind of taking over too — letting him do more production with the people. He was so great with people and personalities. He's just a warm, sweet person who knows how to make people feel comfortable in the studio.
"He had this thing he called 'zengineering' which I think meant whenever the performance came — that was it, that was what you got. There were a few times when I fucked up pretty bad. During the [Was (Not Was)] song 'Dad I'm In Jail' David Was went out to do his vocal. For some reason I decided to switch preamps to a different channel and it was wide open when he went out there. So he started screaming into the mic. If you listen to it, the vocal gets cleaner and cleaner and cleaner until the end when it's at the proper level. It's really funny, but it fit the tune too. 'Hello Dad, I'm in jail, I like it, say hi to mom'.
"I love that about music — the best things are unplanned. That's the gift of it — that's something being channeled through the cosmos. I was recording a rock band on analog, on the Stephens machine. It sounded like voices singing in the chorus. So I'm soloing up tracks to try to find this and it's nowhere to be found. It was a combination of a bunch of different harmonics from the guitars — maybe the cymbals and vocal that made this whole new part. Sometimes stuff that just happens is cool, like if the guitar player and a drummer are standing next to each other and you hear the drummer take off and do a break and the guitar player's not playing, but you hear the drums come through the guitar amp and the spring reverb. I love that. When I cut live with bass and drums I like the leakage. I like to put the bass facing the drums so I get the bass through the overhead mics. You can roll as much in and out of that as you like. It just gives you the feeling of being there in the room with everybody. All of my favorite stuff — The Beatles, the '70s rock stuff, big bands, the great jazz records — is all about the people feeding off of each other in the room. The room has a harmonic that it's playing into the record as well. A drum machine with a room sound is bizarre. We used that a few times. Obie Trice's song 'Cheers' featured a lot of that.
"This is an old Quantum console, here at 54 Sound [in Ferndale, MI]. We used to make all kinds of records on this. I mixed a couple of Marshall's records on this that ended up going to vinyl. I started on The Marshall Mathers LP. Actually, before he got his deal, I mastered an EP that was recorded by Mark and Jeff Bass [Bass Brothers], which was the catalyst for him getting connected with Dr. Dre. I recorded The Romantics in here — Parliament did a bunch of tracks in here. This building used to be a tool shop. When I started working with Joel [Martin, owner, producer] the first project was a band — Loudhouse, on Virgin Records — they eventually turned into Sponge. We did their whole record here. We have a lot of toys from the old days — a Hammond C3 that used to belong to Aretha Franklin's father, a Mellotron, Vox organs and a Wurlitzer piano.
"Most of the stuff we do here is real playing. All of Marshall's records started out with the three of us jamming — Marshall would work the drum machine — he's great at that. I think he knows how he wants to approach the rap rhythm. I think he had in his head a theme or a concept or some kind of rhythmic motif, and he'd sit there and spread it out on the drums so that when he'd go in the booth he would know exactly what little elements he wanted to play off of. It's pretty interesting. And then he always has a lot to say. He's so clever about how he puts the words and rhythms together along with the music. I would play bass or guitar and Louis [Resto] would do keys. After the vocals were on we'd orchestrate the track around the theme of the lyrics.
"That's Jeff Bass playing guitar on 'Lose Yourself'. I mixed that — I was there from the beginning. We were on the set for the movie [8 Mile] when Marshall did his vocal. He would come in on his lunch break, which was usually 15 minutes long. The vocal that ended up being the final vocal was the first take. He tried to sing it a few other times, but just couldn't beat it because he had some kind of other energy. He was making them wait — he came in and said, 'Okay I gotta do this real quick.' He did it real fast and laid some doubles on it like he usually did. You can hear it's in one of those vox boxes in a trailer — the floor is kind of hollow. But the emotion he put into that particular performance was awesome — we were all like, 'Oh my God!' That guy is super talented, brilliant.
"When we were on the road we would always try to have a studio setup. We used to take the Stephens portable [tape recorder] on remotes. We had a little cue mixer built so we could make sure we were getting everything to tape. It's really quite a machine. Most of Marshall's stuff was recorded on that and then we would transfer it to Pro Tools. It gets the analog bang. I think that's why the stuff had such a nice low end to it. The top end of that machine is real good too. The vocal chain was always an Avalon preamp, Neve 33609 compressor and a Sony C800G tube mic. Earlier with Marshall I used the Neve 1073 preamp and a [Neumann] U47. I recorded Aretha Franklin for the Frank Sinatra Duets record with the Neve, and I made sure to run Frank's voice through all my stuff just for karma! As soon as I bought this stuff in the early '80s and plugged it in I thought, 'That's the vocal sound I love.' You hear it on all the old hi-fi records, the tube mic with the discrete back end.
"One of my favorite places that I ever worked (that I was lucky to work at) was United Sound [in Detroit]. There was something magical about how the rooms were tuned or set up — it was so full — puffy with impact, but it never was too much. It's a mystery. It was balanced all the way from the upper bass to the low end. They had all these great mics — old Neumanns, RCA ribbons — and LA-2As and Pultecs from back in the day. But the main thing was the console — the [Neve] 8032. It had 32 1084 preamps that had Neve limiters. I started at United Sound with Don Davis [owner, producer, guitarist]. We did an album with The Dramatics — to hear four guys get on a mic and sing that way, remixes, Johnny Taylor, David Ruffin — all great stuff. I saw something there, in the B room. I would be working late at night and all of a sudden I would see this figure float up the stairs — the ghost. It wasn't scary. I want to know what that was. It goes back to those voices, the music of the spheres.
"My background has always been analog, cutting to tape. With digital recording the advantage is the manipulation ability of the computer, editing. My perception was that it was beautifully clear at first. But after being around for so many years I find it can hurt you. It isn't as listener friendly as sine waves, because you're hearing a reproduced sine wave with a bunch of little square samples. I think with all this digital stuff — digital phones, digital iPods — there's going to be a lot of hearing problems coming up. You take a crispy little CD and jam it through a set of shitty little speaker buds and blast it loud — people are going to get hurt. I worry about that because I have these little aches and pains in my head. I wonder if I had never messed with digital stuff, would it have happened?
"Millions of people can get Pro Tools in their house, but when it really comes to putting something together there are people who have spent their whole lives making records, like me, learning how to interpret what the artist and players want. Sites on the Internet give information about recording — a lot of guys want to share. Magazines are great — like Tape Op — you can get a lot of information by reading interviews with engineers and producers. Before you go to calculus you need to learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Learning how to record in the old school way can help you in digital. There are lots of programs at colleges in recording arts and multimedia that are worth investigating. I went back to school when I was 40 — things got slow in Detroit. I had always played in bands and I had a basic knowledge of music theory. But as soon as I went back to school and immersed myself in the program I heard things I never knew before.
"Perception is a strange thing in music. When I was a kid I always thought I played awful. But now I think I played really good — there was always some level of consistency. It was just where my head was at. As I get older and my head calms down a little, I have more confidence in what I'm hearing. I still keep learning every time I work with somebody. Everybody that I work with is equal. Just because I'm older and have been around for longer doesn't necessarily mean that I know what's right for what they're looking for. I've recorded my son's band a few times, I let them run the show. I'm just there to interface between them and the gear and then maybe put my two cents in later for mixing. If you squash someone's energy it ruins the session totally. If you don't give everyone equal time to make sure they like their sound it can have an emotional effect on them that's negative to the music. Who am I to say? What do I know? I know the buttons and gear. Maybe if I had told that rock band I talked about earlier to turn the guitars down I wouldn't have heard those voices coming into the track."
What is Steve King listening to in his leisure time?
"Foo Fighters. I love them — beautiful songs. On their last recording he's really hitting that inside thing, you know? On one song I was practically crying. I think it was about addiction and feeling helpless. He's writing real songs that are coming right out of his heart. I like the last Bob Dylan album a lot. I love The Black Crowes — one of my favorites Don [Was] produced — the Lions record. I thought it was amazing. I picked his brain on how he recorded that. He wasn't afraid to be himself, to present a concept to the band and you can hear they felt good about making a record. I guess it's good to make money, but the stuff that really affects me is the stuff I put my heart into the hardest. And it's not really that commercial."