Award-winning record producer and composer Steve Levine has amassed an incredible portfolio of music and awards over a decades-long career, producing legendary bands Culture Club (three multi-platinum albums), The Clash, The Beach Boys, XTC, The Honeyz, and The Vapors. He won a Grammy for his work on Deniece Williams' “Water Under The Bridge” album, and his radio production company produces original high-quality radio content, including The Record Producers, a BBC Radio 2 and BBC6 Music series. Steve has also won a Sony Radio Award and most recently, two Gold Awards at the New York Radio Festival.
Any one of these career milestones would be an astounding feat, but most impressive is how Steve continues to hone his skills, reinvent himself, and expand his footprint in the industry. Currently Steve is in the studio producing the debut album for the Hushtones, a talented Liverpool retro alt-pop outfit combining retro style with modern elements, ranging from chill-pop to punk rock to psychedelic alt-pop.
Our paths met through Steve's newest endeavor as a video game music producer, via our software partner, PSPaudioware, developers of high-end audio effect and processor plug-ins. Along with games producer Milky Tea, Steve has created the soundtrack to the brand-new video game, Hyper Brawl. The official soundtrack release of Hyper Brawl's music has been released through Sony Music Soundtracks.
In our interview, Steve talks about his experiences, offers advice, discusses integrating Cherry Audio's Voltage Modular into his workflow, as well as what he likes most about Cherry Audio's new polyphonic synthesizer, DCO-106:
Q: Tell us how about yourself. How did you get started in the music business?
I've been a music producer for nearly 40 years. Starting as a “tape op“ in 1975 at CBS studios, I progressed to in-house engineer and worked with many new wave, punk, and pop acts including The Clash, The Jags, The Vibrators, XTC & Sailor. Beach Boy, Bruce Johnson played an important part in my early career. I produced an album for him.
Q: What do you like to do outside of music?
I love listening to music, I have a wide eclectic taste. I’m an electronics fan so I like tinkering with equipment. I also hold production masterclasses (before the lockdown) for production students.
Q: What got you into music?
I went to a technical-based school, so I learned a lot about the technical side of music creation - from an early age my world was surrounded by music and that became very important in my life - and of course it still is.
Q: In your work with so many legendary artists like the Beach Boys, Culture Club, and The Clash (dream gigs for all of our readers), what did you take away from these sessions? What was unique about each experience?
Every session is different and as a producer you learn something new every time - often it's a small thing, but occasionally it’s a game changing moment - it could be a new piece of equipment that suddenly changes or enhances your work flow, or it’s a guitar tone or a synth sound that changes the direction of the song or track. Being a good producer is about communication and the way a band or artist works in the studio; it can often influence the outcome of the session. To me, a successful artist is very similar to an emerging artist, everyone wants to do the best they can - success for some often comes at a price and this can have an impact on a session - but that’s a whole other can of worms...
Q: We were excited to learn how much of a role Voltage Modular is currently playing in your studio, as well as your incredible work with the Hyper Brawl soundtrack. While you can hear bits of Voltage Modular with a careful listen, you seem to really have made it form to your sound. What are some of the tricks and tips you can share for these rich sounds?
I was really excited to get started using Voltage Modular. Initially I was introduced to you via Antoni from PSP (I’ve been using his wonderful plugins since the very start). I presumed correctly that he would only work with a company of similar quality. I had already made quite a bit of progress on the games music before using Voltage - I had been using modular hardware and some of my vintage synths on what was already recorded.
The most important feature in Voltage Modular is to have modular repeatability, something that’s almost impossible with hardware - even if I have a patch set up on my modular system, even the next day it appears to sound different without me changing a thing! Whilst this often creates wonderful unintended consequences, there are times when you need total recall.
This is especially true on the game soundtrack when I would submit a “sketch” idea and the client (Milky Tea) requests tweaks or changes, you need to be able recreate the original approved sound pallet ideas perfectly in order to make changes to the final version.
Q: You've mentioned integrating some of
your hardware with Voltage Modular. What have you been using it for?
I love all the Voltage sequencer modules so I can create musical ideas and run some hardware sounds alongside. The other trick is “mix 'n' match“, using say, a Voltage oscillator module, then perhaps sending it to a hardware filter, or even a guitar pedal. I use guitar pedals a lot to create original tones. I use Expert Sleepers ES-8 ADAT to audio to interface the DAW audio out into my modular world, and Erica Synths MIDI to CV for sequencing from the DAW - it works really well.
Q: How did you get your start in the
world of film/TV/game music?
This has always been a direct approach to the director or the film/TV/ game creators. I don’t have a “movie” agent; I feel my music production CV helps them decide if I’m the right person for the job.
Q: It looks like you have a great studio
setup! What are some of your favorite tools?
Always good microphones to capture audio - (Neumann) U47 for example - choosing the right microphone for the source. I have some expensive mics that sit perfectly along side cheap eBay or junk store finds. I’m not a brand snob, capturing the sound with the right tools for the job is essential - using the right microphone preamp - Neve 1073 is one of my top choices - that’s probably used on every session. Loads of synths (even though I regularly thin out those that I don’t use as much - but I still have some classics I can’t part with).
Q: How is soundtrack work different from creating your regular music?
The major difference is it’s sometimes more solitary, that’s rarely the case with a band. There are more revisions and changes as the music and the game have to fit seamlessly. That’s one of the freedoms I enjoyed on the original soundtrack version. This was to be a standalone version, but it owes its DNA to the game version - I could make the sections as long or as short as I felt was musically appropriate and indeed add more layers, or in some cases thin the layers to highlight rhythms that I thought might sound interesting if extended.
Q: Have you tried the new DCO-106? What are your thoughts on it?
I have been enjoying the DCO-106; I used to have a Juno-60 and a 106. I’m thrilled that you've included the original factory patches. I no longer have either of those - I foolishly sold them ages ago. I did, however, create some sample sets of a few of my favorite factory sounds with the chorus setting on; I’ve made some A/B and sounds pretty good to me.
Q: Any tips for people looking to break into the world of film and game music?
All I’d say is put quality work on YouTube and you would be surprised who might find you and hire you.
Q: Where can we find your new music projects?
Q: Where can people connect with you?
Editor's Note: Thank you Steve for the fascinating interview, offering your advice, and sharing your truly valuable knowledge and experience with our readers.
Oct 29, 2020