British producer Steve Levine played an immensely big part in defining the sound of the 1980's. His work with Culture Club resulted in some of the best selling records of all time and together they created a sound that has been copied over and over again. But Steve Levine is far from being all about Culture Club. He has also been working with The Beach Boys, The Clash and most recently Natalie McCool. He was also Grammy awarded for his work with Deneice Williams.
Anyone who thinks Steve Levine is stuck in the 80's would just have to speak with him for a couple of seconds to realize nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does he enthusiastically embrace new technology for music recording and mixing, he also keeps constantly busy working on new types of projects. For example, he has been involved in educational material about music recording, film and television scoring, and most recently car sound—both inside and outside of the car!
Doing everything by yourself at home seems cost effective, but most often it's not.
Let's start off by talking about your current work environment. Do you have a studio of your own or do you hire a studio when you work?
I have my own small studio in my back yard. It mainly consists of a control room for mixing, and there's a small booth for vocal and overdubs recording. Depending on the project I'll often book an outside studio to do most of the tracking, and finish it up at home.
I'd really like to recommend that way of working. You see so many people who try tracking at home or in a rehearsal space and then try to make that work in the mix. Doing everything by yourself at home seems cost effective, but most often it's not. I'd recommend artists and bands to carefully work out the arrangements in a rehearsal room, and when that's done you book a studio with a really good recording space to quickly cut the tracks and then bring that home for overdubs and mixes.
One other thing I think the younger generations do too much of is mixing with their eyes instead of their ears. I think it's a consequence of everything being in the box, and myself, I mix in Logic via a Yamaha digital console for the physical faders.
The struggles of making a record are still very much the same as they were back in the 80's.
What other big mistakes do you see recordists and mix engineers often make today?
I get mix jobs where I see people have failed on the most basic and essential things. Like getting the gain structure right. The material is often either recorded too hot or too soft, and people use crap cables so there's hum and dropouts and whatnot. Sadly, a lot of the young people have never recorded in a classic type of studio so they have never learned the very basics.
Another thing is the tendency to have one person do everything in a recording. I mean, even in recent history, an engineer was an engineer, a musician was a musician and in some cases a songwriter was a songwriter. I don't think people should be afraid to collaborate more, and for example bring in a friend to mix the music for them. People have different talents and different areas of expertise. Let the friend who went to a recording school do the sound work and let the band concentrate on getting the best possible performance. Be good at your job. Tell the engineer what you want it to sound like and let him or her fix that for you.
Is there such a thing as a Steve Levine sound—can people put on a record and tell you have recorded it?
I think I can. But I remember back in the 80's when we were starting to get success with Culture Club, I was phoned up by the guitarist who had just heard Holiday by Madonna, and asked if I made that record. But I think with the more recent things I've done, what you hear is just good engineering practice. It's not a Steve Levine record, it's the band's record and I don't want to dominate it. It's not like when you heard a Trevor Horn or a Stock, Aitken and Waterman recording that the sound dominated the record—I'm not that type of producer. What I want to do is enhance what the band wants and what their own sound is. Sometimes we develop new tones together and in some cases those tones become a trademark for that band, but I still wouldn't say it's my sound.
Do You Really Want To Hurt Me—you can't time stamp it, a new band could release a song that sounds like that today and they'd be considered fresh and modern.
Your name is probably very connected to Culture Club's in many people's minds. How do you feel about that, and what are the pros and cons for a producer to be that tightly connected to a certain band?
Well, first of all, I'm very proud of the work I did with Culture Club. But, not to compare myself, but I think I've suffered in much the same way George Martin has, because he will forever be associated with the Beatles. People forget all the other fantastic stuff he has done with America, Jeff Beck and all the other stuff. He did five albums with America! So Culture Club is my Beatles if you like.
I was like the fifth member of the band and I'm still very good friends with them. We all grew up in the same era of music and we had the same background listening to glam rock, reggae and Motown soul. So Culture Club just became a melting pot of all that. We had the same love an excitement, and it was such a huge success. Our record sales were really astronomical even by the standards of those days and completely breathtaking by today's. I mean, there was a period of time when the single Karma Chameleon was selling 65,000 copies each day. It's one of the best selling singles of all time.
And you have to put [Boy] George up there with Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and those people as one of the timeless icons of pop music. You could probably go somewhere in the middle of Africa and say "Boy George" and they'd know who you meant. I think Karma Chameleon absolutely encapsulates the sound of the 80's, and today it's a karaoke favorite. And then Do You Really Want To Hurt Me—you can't time stamp it, a new band could release a song that sounds like that today and they'd be considered fresh and modern.
Even with your 35+ years of music recording experience, are there still things you find yourself struggling with when it comes to recording?
They're still in many ways the same things, aren't they? You never got enough time, you never got enough money and sometimes you haven't got enough talent, haha! On many levels, things haven't changed at all, the struggles of making a record are still very much the same as they were back in the 80's. You have new equipment today that makes the job substantially easier, but then there's a lot of other things that fight against you. You upgrade the operating system on you computer and suddenly none of your plug-ins work. Some of the problems have changed, but the fact that they're there hasn't gone away.
I found a Boy George quote on you, saying that you were ahead in embracing the latest technology of music recording and production. Does that still hold true?
Absolutely. I was always fascinated by science and technology and I have a very open mind to trying new stuff and seeing how I can use it. It excites me. It's like a guitarist getting a new guitar or new pedal. I'll go, "but hey ... what if I use this thing this way ... ?"
So what old gear do you still hold on to?
Certainly my microphones, they're still pretty much the ones I got back in the 80's. I've got some outboard that is from that period, I still got my original AMS phaser, which I love, I still got my GML equalizer, which I love, and a few keyboards that I just couldn't get rid of. I still got the Roland CR-78 drum machine as used on Do You Really Want To Hurt Me. But also lots of brand new things.
You have also been involved in a lot of other things apart from record production and mixing—for example a car sound project. Not just making the sound inside of the car be good, but also how an otherwise silent electrical car should sound like from the outside so people hear it coming. What are the pros and cons of not being purely focused on music mixing or record production?
I think mixing and producing benefits from me working in different fields, because I get a different perspective on working with sound. You get presented to other problems, like with the car people who need to address how to fit a speaker in a door and not make it rattle. And how you make sure things sound like you want them to in the car—and the safety issues of having completely silent cars. But I don't actually see it as another field—it's still sound, and that's what I do!