Steven Wilson and the Art of the Home Studio

No Man’s Land

When No Man’s Land Studio finally gets the Blue Plaque it deserves in recognition of the artistic endeavour that took place there, the people who arrive to mount it on the wall it won’t find a palace like Paisley Park. They will find a suburban bungalow in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, England. Unlike Prince, who was able to record in any room in his Paisley Park complex, Steven Wilson had one room in which to record – his childhood bedroom.

The original No Man’s Land studio (Sound on Sound magazine 2010)

It was in No Man’s Land Studio/Steven’s bedroom that the first two Porcupine Tree albums, On the Sunday of Life and Up the Downstair were recorded in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But as the decades progressed and the band began to record in better and better studios – Foel Studio in Wales, Avatar Studios in New York, and AIR Studios in Lyndhurst Hall, London – Steven still returned to his childhood home to record and mix Porcupine Tree’s albums. It was not until the summer of 2009 that he moved his studio into his own house, and even then, it was an in an ordinary room. Steven told Sound on Sound magazine in 2010 that, ‘People always ask if they can see or photograph my studio and I say, ‘you might be disappointed.’

The professional studio

What is remarkable about No Man’s Land is that Steven continued to work in his bedroom studio despite its obvious limitations. Technology now allows very high-quality recordings to be made in bedrooms using laptops and highly sophisticated software, mixing ‘inside the box’ as the sound engineers say.There was a time, before mixing desks became automated (able to replicate the engineer’s skilled finger on the fader with ghostly precision) when a small orchestra of musicians used to line up along the length of the mixing board to do the final mix, which was a performance in itself. But in the late 1980s when Steven started writing and recording music the technology was primitive and most aspiring musicians craved a record deal, partly because it meant that they had access to a decent recording studio.

Eventually, by the time of Porcupine Tree’s seventh studio album In Absentia, Steven did get a deal with a major American record label and did have access to a major American studio (Avatar in New York) but didn’t achieve the sales that he and the record company expected (and frankly deserved).

But the fact that Steven continued to use a bedroom studio so much, even when Porcupine Tree became increasingly successful, says a great deal about him as a musician and producer.

The autodidact

Steven Wilson is an autodidact and he was lucky enough to have a father who was an electronics engineer who when Steven was an early teenager helped the young adventurer by building him eccentric electronic delights; a sequencer that divided the notes into units of three when most rock songs have four beats in each bar, maybe instilling in the young Steven an unconscious love of the unusual time signatures that kept the world of Prog Rock turning for the last 50 or 60 years; a four-track recorder on which the erase head didn’t work so everything had to be recorded in one take . He told Sound on Sound that he would play his father a record and say, ‘Dad, how do you make that sound? And he’d go off and figure it out.’ Steven’s dad was also a musical influence on his son, as was his mother. He recalls hearing his father listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and his mother to Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby, two albums that had a huge musical impact on him at the age of eight.

Re-Mixing

What is remarkable about Steven is that he has built up a reputation as a producer and re-mixer of some of the greatest prog rock bands ever while still working in his studio at home. It probably didn’t do any harm that his surround sound mix of 2007’s classic Porcupine Tree album Fear of a Blank Planet was nominated for a Grammy. The list of artists he has remixed in stereo and/or surround sound is impressive, including Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Marillion, Roxy Music, Rush, Simple Minds, Tangerine Dream, Tears for Fears, XTC and Yes. He told Sound on Sound that his work on these classic records was ‘The equivalent of polishing the Sistine Chapel’; to continue his metaphor no paint fell off the ceiling, and the colours were brighter, the lines clearer but still true to Michelangelo’s original vision. His remixes are respectful, revealing the beauty of what is already there rather than imposing his own personality.

No-man’s Land studio (Sound on Sound magazine 2010)

Storm Corrosion

Steven Wilson has had a long association with Mikael Åkerfeldt from the Swedish heavy metal band Opeth, producing several of the band’s albums starting with Blackwater Park in 2001. The partnership between Steven and Mikael bore musical fruit in 2012 with their Storm Corrosion collaboration and the album of the same name, recorded at No Man’s Land. The album includes the remarkable song ‘Drag Ropes’, a disturbingly, bewitchingly, discordantly melodic epic with some of the most gorgeous vocals ever recorded by either of them. Its terrible beauty is matched by the official video made by Jess Cope, who also created some of best videos for Steven’s solo work for songs such as ‘Routine’ (from Hand.Cannot.Erase) and ‘Drive Home’ and ‘The Raven That Refused to Sing’ (from the album of the same name). 

The video for Drag Ropes, directed by Directed by Jess Cope

Steven’s 5.1 mix of the Storm Corrosion album was nominated for Best Surround Sound Album in the 55th Grammy Awards. So how has he achieved all this often without going into a professional studio? He has admitted that he often found it confusing to go into a professional studio with a proper mixing desk and speakers. He got worse results in the studio rather than recording and mixing at home because as he told Sound on Sound he had, ‘no idea what I was hearing’. Getting to know how his room sounds is the most important thing, even though it doesn’t have state of the art acoustic treatment and an analogue mixing desk with 384 faders (in 2005 the Harrison installed a console with 384 inputs which was over 30 feet long into Universal’s Dub Room 4 a.k.a. Alfred Hitchcock Theater, but it looks more like a stadium than a home studio). Having a consistent internal audio reference point is more important to him than using an expensive studio, because although it will sound impressive it will also sound confusingly different from what his ears are used to.

Loudness Wars

Steven has often mastered his own mixes, and one reason he has avoided sending them to a mastering engineer is that audio compression is often applied by the engineer. This evens out the differences between quiet passages and loud passages so that the song sounds consistently, excitingly loud throughout. A member of Deep Purple can be heard saying to the sound engineer on the iconic Made in Japan live album, ‘Can I have everything louder than everything else?’ And this witty comment sums up the problem; if everything is louder, then nothing is louder. The so-called Loudness Wars began; ears bled, brains fried and for some listeners the music was ruined. Metallica’s fans complained that the 2008 album Death Magnetic sounded compressed and lifeless. In response to the criticism, the band’s drummer Lars Ulrich said the album was designed to sound loud in your car; he had listened to it in his car and in his view, it sounded ‘smokin’.

Compression can make songs cut through on the radio, but the point about many of Porcupine Tree’s songs is that they are often long-form stories, with dynamic contrast between loud and soft parts throughout, more like a piece of classical music than a radio-friendly pop song. Perhaps a better comparison is a song like ‘Echoes’ from Pink Floyd’s 1971 album Meddle, which at over 23 minutes fills the whole of side two on vinyl. This starts with the gentle sound of Richard Wright’s amplified piano passing through a Hammond Organ speaker, leading to beautifully delicate vocal harmonies, a monumentally funky section with a raging distorted guitar, an abstract stormy section with anguished seagull cries, finally returning to the opening piano motif, via an explosion of sunlit hope, then a nostalgic return to the beautiful vocal harmonies, rising finally into the stratosphere with a repeating theme that rises forever and ever. The longer songs of Porcupine Tree share some of Pink Floyd’s epic length and ambitious journeys.

Home demos

Steven’s early albums under the Porcupine Tree name were largely solo efforts, but even when Porcupine Tree became a proper band a lot of the material began as very detailed demos recorded in his home studio. He created the drums, bass and synthesizer parts using computer software, then added piano, guitars and vocals over the top. When the band could eventually afford to go into world-class recording studios, he would then ask them to replace the parts he had programmed into his computer with real drums, bass and synthesizers. It’s a very unusual band dynamic, and what is more remarkable in some ways is the fact that despite the amount of control he had over the whole process Steven had the musical intelligence to allow the other superb musicians in the band  to bring their own personalities to the recordings – all of them are distinctively themselves but also fit perfectly into the band’s overall dynamic. 

While preparing the demos in his home studio, Steven took the very prescient step of recording everything in the highest possible quality, particularly the vocals. He kept most of the vocals from the demo versions because at the time he wrote the song he felt closest to it emotionally. The poet William Wordsworth took a very different approach, ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.’ Steven didn’t need to recall the raw emotion he felt in the white heat of creativity; he had already recorded it on tape. By doing so, he was able to solve the problem that many bands have, of trying to capture the raw emotion of the initial demo that somehow slips through the fingers like an eel. A possible way round that is to do what 1980s band T-coy did with their song Cariño. Lacking a master tape of the song, they simply pressed copies straight from the original demo they had recorded on cassette.

The new studio

Steven Wilson’s new home studio

Steven Wilson recently moved house and has had a lovely new home studio built. The studio can be seen in several home recordings he made during lockdown of classic Porcupine Tree songs on the Future Bites sessions, released on YouTube. He now has the facility to mix in Dolby Atmos surround sound, which is more sophisticated than the 5.1 sound system he had in his previous home studio. His most recent album The Future Bites is available in a Dolby Atmos mix, and he has just completed a tenth-anniversary surround sound mix of the Storm Corrosion album in both 5.1 and Atmos. He has also brought hope to fans of the project by telling Jerry Ewing of Prog magazine that he may make another album with Mikael Åkerfeldt, but only if they can work together in his home studio again.

References:

Tom Flint, Steven Wilson: Recording & Marketing Porcupine Tree (Sound on Sound magazine, June 2010); Jerry Ewing, Steven Wilson discusses possible Storm Corrosion II (Prog magazine)

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