MOTIVATING THE MIX
Steve Rodway Of MOTIV8: Remixing Pulp And St Etienne
Published in Sound On Sound
The last year has seen Steve Rodway shoot to fame as a producer/remixer whose golden touch is as highly respected on the dancefloor as it is on the mainstream charts. MATT BELL meets the man behind Motiv8 to discuss his mixing methods, the technology he uses, and the remix work that put him on the map...
Times have certainly changed for producer, songwriter, and remixer Steve Rodway since SOS last spoke to him in August 1994. At that point, he had had only two doses of chart success: one as artist Motiv8, with the self-produced hit 'Rockin' For Myself'; and the other as remixer on a substantial Euro-style dance reworking of the Doobie Brothers' 1972 hit, 'Listen to the Music'. However, these two hits proved to be just the beginning. Steve's name has scarcely been absent from the charts since, whether appearing on Motiv8's own singles, or, as has been more common recently, as a remixer on the releases of other artists, such as Diana Ross ('I Will Survive'), West End ('It's Raining Men'), and Dubstar ('Stars').
Indeed, over the last few months, Steve has settled into an enviable position as the remixer of choice for artists requiring a hit on dancefloors and radio playlists alike. The 'Euro' sound that has characterised his work since 'Rockin' For Myself' -- unashamedly sequenced basslines chugging alongside rhythmic arpeggios, strong synth lead lines and the relentless sound of the Roland TR909 kick, snare, and hi-hat -- seems equally at home pounding from club PAs as it does from radio speakers.
The track that launched Steve into the top division of UK remixers was the Motiv8 mix he did for Pulp's 1995 hit single 'Common People'. 'Common People' made it into the Top 5 in its original, guitar-laden version without too much help from Motiv8, but then something rather unusual happened; Radio 1 replaced the song's original mix on its daytime playlist with the Motiv8 remix. Naturally, Steve's name spread around the music business like wildfire, and remix offers started to flood in. I met with Steve to discuss the technology he now uses to perform his remixes, with particular reference to the three projects which had opened the most doors for him: 'Common People'; the remix of the follow-up Pulp single, 'Disco 2000'; and a St Etienne track, which, thanks to Steve, became the hit single, 'He's On The Phone'.
Steve explained how the Pulp mix had come about. "Pulp's manager was looking for remixers to work with the band, and rang me up -- they clearly wanted to corner another part of the market. I met with them to get a feel for want they wanted from me, which was a good thing to do, as often you don't have to meet the artists you do remixes for. The thing that kept coming out was that they loved 'Rockin' For Myself', and wanted a pure, unashamed, Euro version of 'Common People'. I remember saying to Jarvis [Cocker, Pulp's charismatic lead singer] 'Are you sure about this? What about your fans? Won't they hate it?', but he just said 'Nah -- they'll love it'. He was right! It's quite rare for a remix to be playlisted over the original version. It certainly changed my mixing career for me, and opened a lot of doors."
As with most of his remixes, Steve decided to take only Jarvis Cocker's vocal from the original track, and create his own backing track. He explained why: "I only take things which spotlight the performance of the record, and with 'Common People', for me, it was Jarvis's vocal, and the song itself, which shone out.
"I went back and thought about how I could change the track. It was the first remix I'd done where everything had to be slowed down, because the original was at about 160 beats per minute! Normally, I have to speed things up." In the end, Steve made considerable changes to the arrangement of the song. The original 'Common People', built to a climactic finale, instrumentally and vocally. "I took one of the earlier, quieter choruses and repeated that at the end, to avoid the raggedness of the original version's final verses. I think that helped make it more danceable, because it was more uniform throughout.
"A passing chord was added on the chorus. This brought out the passion in Jarvis's voice, and had the effect of breaking up the repetitive sequenced bassline in the chorus a bit, which needed to go somewhere else at that point. Finally, a lead synth line was added as a hook, from my Oberheim Matrix 1000 and Roland Jupiter 6, which had a little portamento. I felt the track needed something like that, because the chorus was quite long."
The remix's rhythm track followed the quasi-standard Motiv8 dance pattern of Roland TR909-derived kick and snare samples overlaid with two low-key percussion loops, and cabasa and tom-tom sounds from Steve's Roland U220. Steve: "The bass drum was one I'd prepared earlier -- a Roland TR909 sample EQ'd, treated, pitched and re-sampled. I call it my 'English' kick [see the 'Now That I Own An SSHDR1' box for more on this]. I used more than one snare sound, because the backbeat was coming off the loops and the clap. A 909 snare came in just to do the fills. That way, they pop out at you more".
"The basslines were layered Moog samples on top of a Novation Bass Station and Roland Juno 106, and I chose a combination of Korg Wavestation and Emu Morpheus for pads. The high string line was the trusty U220, which I find really cuts through mixes. I'm a big fan of the U220 -- it's an oldie but goodie!"
The track also featured one of Motiv8's trademark sounds -- little arpeggio figures running through the verses. Last time SOS spoke to him, Steve was actually triggering this sound from a Roland JP4 and its internal arpeggiator. The sound used here, however, was a Juno sample from Steve's Emu Vintage Keys Plus, sequenced to sound like an arpeggiator.
Motiv8 mixes usually feature arpeggios through a stereo delay, with the right-hand delay set to a multiple of the left-hand delay. "That works out nicely, as I like to use a mono delay on lead vocals -- and with stereo delay on the arpeggios, you've got a gap down the middle of the mix for the voice."
Timestretching Jarvis Cocker's characteristic vocals to fit the new, slower tempo of 135bpm caused Steve some problems, as he recounted:
"When you listen to Jarvis's vocals over the original music, they fit really well, because they've got a ragged feel that blends in with the ragged energy of the music. But as soon as I put his vocals over a mechanical, continuous 135bpm beat, I had to make his vocal blend in. I found myself moving various vocal lines, which I couldn't hear being out on the original -- but against the perfect timing of the new backing, they required some careful adjustment. Once that was OK, I compressed the vocals heavily with a valve compressor. In the end, I thought the vocal was perfect for the remixed version."
Given the smash success of the Motiv8 'Common People' remix, it was hardly surprising when Steve was subsequently invited to remix Pulp's follow-up single, 'Disco 2000'. But he decided to avoid repeating himself, and two mixes resulted, the vocal 'Discoid' and the instrumental 'Gimp Dub', each almost as different from one another as they were from the 'Common People' mix.
Steve: "They were a bit harder-sounding. I wanted to avoid doing something similar, as I knew the spotlight was on me. I hadn't been asked to do two mixes, but I wanted to get over a different angle on the track, and rather than run a version of the same mix without so many vocals, it was nice to treat the music slightly differently. It's important to remember that a lot of people perceived Motiv8 as having quite a hard underground sound when it first came out, but equally, others associate it with crossover stuff, so I needed to keep both sets of people happy. Mark Goodier raved about it, saying the Discoid version was better than the original and should have been on the album -- so I knew I'd probably cracked it!"
For the vocal mix, Steve again took nothing but the vocals from the original track, discarding even the driving guitar riff that powered the original song -- and built a new backing, this time based around a harder rhythm track than that featured on 'Common People' and a fatter-sounding, more resonant bassline. Once again, too, he made some changes to the arrangement, inserting a new Jupiter 6-derived synth lead line, and inserting more passing chords into the chorus to make up for the loss of the guitar riff in the original track. For the 'Gimp Dub' an even harder backing track was constructed, comprising the same bassline, but with an even more 'acidic' sound, sparse snatches of vocal, and a structure totally unlike the original song or the Discoid mix.
Unsurprisingly, to create the fat bass sound on the 'Discoid Mix', Steve fell back on two of his Deep Bass Nine analogue bass synths. The highly acidic line on the 'Gimp Dub' was from his TB303. "That's a completely live filter sweep, too! I just tweaked the knob while I was recording it to DAT." Filter-swept pads from Steve's Korg Wavestation, heavily-compressed U220 guitar samples, and harder rhythm loops completed the picture, with more effects present on the 'Gimp Dub' version. As Steve recalls: "I'd done the main mix, and then gone one step further. It's a good underground version."
THE SAINTS CAME MARCHING IN
The production Steve carried out on a St Etienne track last year differs from his work for Pulp, in that the Motiv8-produced version became the commercially released St Etienne track, while the original recording of the song remained hard to find. St Etienne had collaborated with French male singer Etienne Daho on a rare EP of five songs, but regular vocalist Sarah Cracknell had only sung lead vocals on one of these, 'Accident'. The group then became involved with putting together their Greatest Hits package Too Young To Die, and wanted a single to promote it. Steve Rodway takes up the story:
"I'd remixed one of their previous singles, and Bob [Stanley, of St Etienne] came to me with the track 'Accident', saying 'We want a hit to launch our Greatest Hits album, and we'd love to get on Radio 1 with this'. They had never planned for 'Accident' to be a single, but it was the only new track they had."
As with the Pulp mixes, after an initial meeting, Steve was left to get on with the remix undisturbed by the band who had written the track. Unlike the work for Pulp, however, he was asked if he could include two elements in addition to the original vocals. Firstly, there was a rap by Etienne Daho:
"I had to get that in, because the track was supposed to be a duet. I chopped the rap down -- it went on for ages in the original -- so it's completely different now." The second element from the original 'Accident' was the piano riff that opens the finished track: "Bob did ask me to try and keep the piano in somewhere, or a line similar to it. It was a nice line, though, so it stayed."
Lastly, Steve chose to keep at least the idea behind the string arrangement on 'Accident': "I liked the general feel, although I changed the arrangement for my mix. I just took out what I thought the original arranger had been trying to get at in his arrangement, and redid it as a classical chord progression with pads on my Wavestation and U220, which worked well in the new version".
Apart from the three points mentioned above, however, 'Accident' was rebuilt from the ground up by Steve, like his mixes for Pulp. The track eventually surfaced as the single 'He's On The Phone', which did exactly as everyone had hoped, gaining substantial Radio 1 airplay, reaching number 11 in the national charts, and serving as a trailer hit for the Too Young To Die package.
Steve: "The track was substantially changed. I pretty much took it apart, and changed a couple of lines of the melody in the chorus, where Sarah Cracknell sang 'Someday...'. She only said it once on the original, but I made it into a little hook". In 'He's On The Phone', Sarah's line is echoed and answered by what appear to be backing vocals not present in 'Accident'. However, as Steve explained, Sarah was not required to record extra vocals: "I created those vocals using Soundscape, by repeating the original phrase, timestretching it and pitching it up. The track just seemed to gel after that -- people came into the studio and said, 'Oh, that's great, play it again!', so I felt it was working."
'He's On The Phone' contains most of the 'trademark' Motiv8 sounds -- the bass is a sampled Minimoog, and the driving arpeggios are taken from Steve's Juno 106. The rhythm is again composed of TR909 samples, overlaid with a programmed conga pattern, and the snare only performs fill duties, as on the Motiv8 'Common People' mix. The high string line is once again from the U220, and pads are supplied by the faithful Wavestation and JD800. However, of the three mixes dealt with in this article, it was definitely the one that saw most use made of Soundscape, and not only to add to Sarah Cracknell's vocal. The tom that kicks the track into motion after the intro simply wasn't satisfactory until Steve edited it in Soundscape: "That was a standard low tom sound, and when I listened to the mix back, I felt it didn't have enough bottom end, so I went into the EQ page in Soundscape and adjusted it there. That page is fantastic -- it's fully parametric with variable Q, and it worked superbly. So well, in fact, that I've ended up resampling the EQ'd tom to use on other records!"
Once the track was complete, Steve found himself unhappy with the start. "At one stage, I had the vocal 'He's on the phone...' starting everything off, but on listening to it back, I decided to stitch the pad and piano riff onto the front of that in Soundscape, just to introduce that vocal, as I felt it was perhaps a bit harsh to just jump straight in. I also tweaked the number of times the chorus came round at the beginning before the track kicked off. Now it's finished, it's one of my favourite tracks."
Steve Rodway is currently enjoying success as producer/writer of Gina G's monster hit 'Ooh Ahh... Just A Little Bit', and is working on various remixes, as well as a new Motiv8 single for release later this year.
CHANGING GEAR: MOTIV8 EQUIPMENT
One important result of Steve's recent success is that he can now afford to improve his equipment; the core of his recording setup is now a PC-based Soundscape hard disk recorder. When he carried out the three remixes discussed in detail in this article, he was additionally using an old Atari ST running C-Lab's Notator, which was slaved to the Soundscape system. With this setup, he would store all the acoustic tracks he was working on (guitars, vocals, and occasionally sax) in Soundscape, and keep his MIDI instrument data in the sequencer on the Atari. By the time I spoke to him, he had just taken delivery of Logic for Windows, and had installed it onto the PC running Soundscape, allowing him to dispense with the Atari completely.
I was keen to know why Steve had chosen Soundscape over other hard disk recording systems.
"I was advised that there was going to be a huge amount of software available for the PC, music-wise, as there's such a huge base of users. I was amazed at the new pitch-shifter on Soundscape -- they've let me have an advance beta copy of it. For me, pitch-shifting and timestretching is the cornerstone of remixing. It's great to be able to keep the pitch of something and change the tempo, or vice versa.
"Soundscape's got a brilliant system for recording vocals, as well; you can set up a loop record mode, with start and end points -- say the beginning and end of a verse. The machine then keeps dropping in and recording until you have say 30 takes of the verse in the right place, and just pick the one you want, then compile one from the different takes. The vocalist can record all the takes while you go off and have a coffee!"
Hard disk recording is not the only area Steve has been investing in. A fully-expanded Akai S3200 sits alongside his old S1100 -- now only used when the S3000's memory is full -- and he has also enlarged his synth collection ("lots of analogue stuff, basically") to include two Roland Juno 106s, a Jupiter 6, a Jupiter 8, an SH09 and TB303 (retrofitted with MIDI by Kenton Electronics). There's also a Minimoog (see the 'Sacrilege & Heresy' box for more on this), an Oberheim OB8, and a Roland JX10, which he uses for brassy lead sounds.
Not all the synths are old, however -- Steve's collection also includes two Yamaha TG500s, two Emu Vintage Keys Plus modules, a Korg Wavestation, Oberheim Matrix 1000, an Emu Morpheus, Novation BassStation and the much-used Roland JD800 keyboard and U220 module, plus no less than three Control Synthesis Deep Bass Nines. Why so many? Steve: "I wanted more TB303s -- but couldn't get them! So I got these instead. They're very good, but the tuning wanders, so you've got to let them warm up before you use them, and keep them on. You don't quite get the range on the filter that you do on a 303, either -- but you do get solid, reliable, sounds. And, of course, they work via MIDI."
When it comes to processing, Steve is a confirmed fan of the 'valve sound', claiming, like so many others, that tube-based units add a 'warmth' to the sounds passing through them:
"I love that sound -- especially for dance music, where you're not using analogue tape, and not getting analogue distortion. If you're sequencing everything live in the studio and mastering to DAT, you do need to think about not having too harsh a sound. You don't have any low-end distortion from analogue tape, and everything's going to be quite clean -- so you need to put some grit back in there". For this reason, Steve makes use of several valve compressors around the studio, including those from Focusrite, Tubetech, and TLA, as well as the Drawmer 1960. "I'm a fan of any valve compressors. They really help warm up sharp mid-range vocals."
Despite the extensive use of analogue synths and valve processing in his work, Steve is also a fan of certain digital effects units, such as the TC Electronic M5000, and Lexicon reverbs -- he now owns a Lexicon 224 and a 480L. In addition to his Eventide H3000 UltraHarmonizer, he relies on a more unconventional source for chorus and flanging effects -- the little-known Yamaha DSP1:
"It's similar to their SPX series effects, but it's 16-bit, so it's much quieter. It was originally designed as an expensive piece of kit for generating surround sound and other effects on hi-fis -- an early attempt at what you get on many stack systems nowadays...".
SACRILEGE AND HERESY
Steve owns a real Minimoog, and though he loves its sound and uses it extensively for basslines, he tends to sample it first. Recognising that this is tantamount to heresy amongst those who swear that there's nothing like the sound of a real Minimoog, Steve explains why he bothers to do this:
"That's exactly why! You can tell if you have a real Minimoog in an otherwise sampled mix; it's got extra-low frequencies that appear beneath the bass drum. Sampling removes those, and then at least you get a uniform bottom end on your mix. I suppose it's sacrilege to suggest deliberately sampling a Minimoog when you've got a real one... But of course, you keep the Minimoog, so you can keep setting up different sounds to sample."
REMIXING WITH A HARD DISK RECORDER
I wondered to what extent Steve's Soundscape system had altered his working methods. He took me through a 'typical' remix.
Steve tends to extract very few elements from any previous mixes when he remixes a track: "It's usually just the vocals. If you've got your own 'sound' -- which is, after all, what someone wants from you when they ask you to remix their song -- it's easier to build that up around a vocal on its own".
The vocals arrive on DAT tape, a capella and without any effects. From the DAT, they are loaded into Soundscape. The remix tempo then needs to be decided. Steve: "For dance stuff, I tend to say that anything will work from a minimum of about 131 or 132bpm up to about 138bpm. Anything much faster than 138, and you start to have problems getting people in the UK to dance to it. Germany will have it at 160bpm -- but how many German records at that tempo make it into the British charts? Those are my rough parameters, though of course the final tempo also depends on the individual track, and how it sounds.
"So, knowing roughly the tempo I'm aiming for, I usually sample a small amount, like a chorus, time-stretch it to around the desired tempo, and see how it sounds. Sometimes you're a bpm or two out -- it's trial and error, really."
Once the target tempo has been determined, Soundscape is used to timestretch or compress the entire vocal, which is then returned to DAT. From here, it can then be chopped up into short phrases and retriggered later over the new instrumental backing, once this has been constructed.
Steve starts on the backing by finding pads and chords to match the chorus vocals, sometimes changing the chords of the original track, as in all three of the remixes discussed in this article. However, he is not always free to do this: "Sometimes, you have backing vocals with complex harmonies that just won't permit you to shift into any other chords." Once the chorus is settled upon, Steve works out the verses. "I feel comfortable once I've got the hook sorted, because to me, it's the most important part of the record."
The Motiv8 rhythm section tends to comprise sampled loops overlaid on programmed drum samples. Steve relies only occasionally on loops from sample CDs, preferring to create his own:
"There's some interesting percussion on the TG500 which I've worked up into loops. They sound so good, because you've got the balance of elements right yourself -- you're not stuck with what someone else has done for you. You can guarantee nobody else will have them, either. I can't be the only one who likes them, as I've heard various loops from 'Rockin' For Myself' on some sample CDs!"
For kick and snare samples, Steve favours Roland TR909 samples, like most dance music producers, but as with loops, he keeps his own library of distinctively-treated samples:
"Depending on whether I'm doing a mix aimed more at the British or European markets, I've either got a very high-pitched European kick drum -- which I call the 'Napoli' kick, because it's very Italian -- or a deeper, 'English' kick, for want of another expression. I'll often start off with one of these on a track, and then change it later if it's not working."
Unlike the pounding kick drum, straight snare sounds tend to be used in a low-key role in Motiv8 mixes. Steve: "I've often felt that it isn't necessary to have a huge snare sound in dance music -- often, the snares that appear in your loops will do, especially if you've got a clap as well."
Once the backing track is complete, the vocals can be positioned.
"I spend a lot of time on vocal placement. You have to get the vocal sitting right in a track, and it is a time-consuming process. It's very difficult to place vocals against just a bass drum -- you've got to wait until you've got all the music, and see how the groove is sitting. When I think I've got vocals in, I always pull them one way or the other, to make sure they couldn't be tighter. Then, you'll always hear a point at which they are clearly out, and you know where the right place is.
After the vocals have been added, the mix is usually complete, as Steve is a firm believer in balancing and adding any required processing or effects as a track is built up, rather than in one long mixing session at the end:
"It's all done as I go along. The secret is not to lose sight of the drums -- everything else has to stack on top of them, so they can't be too loud. You have to be minimal with everything, and also create the right placement for elements in the mix, in terms of panning. I'm constantly adjusting any EQ, listening to the overall mix as I record, changing things musically, and also keeping an ear out for the vocal -- is it too bright, or too loud, is it sitting nicely? If a vocal is too quiet, I'll bring it up in Soundscape. I normalise vocals before I start and then attenuate them to give me headroom, so I can raise them if I want.
"This way, you're always in mix mode, rather than doing all the recording and only then considering the mix. I prefer the continuous process -- then if something doesn't work as you're recording, you fix it at that time. I'm a great believer in 'hands-on' recording -- I try and do mixes in one pass, rather than by editing sections together. Even if I make a mistake, I'll do the whole mix to tape, and then go back and do a short repair piece, which can easily be edited in over the mistake using Soundscape. Even when we've done mixes on the Neve desk, we've swept the EQ live to DAT, because it's so fabulous. You've got to have a bit of that, because it's easy to get very rigid in the studio. After all, it's not like live TV -- if it doesn't work out, you can just do it again."