In the Mix: Full Circle

When I was first approached to write a column for Electronic Musician, I was initially reluctant: Anyone who has spent considerable time in a recording studio knows that the only thing worse than the attendant tedium involved is reading about it!

On the occasions when I'm featured in a musician's magazine, the journalist will usually ask me for pictures of my studio. Now, we're all familiar with those impossibly exotic "gear-porn" pictures of producers grinning at the camera while behind them sprawls several million pounds worth of throbbing electronics—vast mixing desks, vintage valve compressors, and mic-amps that probably had John Lennon's vocals on "A Day in the Life" recorded through them. And so when I hear this request, I feel the sensation of inadequacy creeping up my spine. You want a picture of my studio? Take a picture of an Apple laptop; there's my studio. Yes, folks, I'm completely in the box these days. Not because I prefer the sound of digital over analog; in fact, quite the contrary. Let me explain.

I have been recording music since I was about 12 years old, and have spent more of my life in recording studios (including my own) than in any other place. I was very fortunate that my father was/is an electronic engineer. When I was barely a teenager in the '80s, I was able to start experimenting with things like multitrack recording and Echoplex guitar, because he would design and build me things that I would have never had access to otherwise: a Vocoder, an echo machine, or a sequencer. Pre-computer recording technology, these things would have been prohibitively expensive for me to buy. So I started experimenting with layering and overdubbing from a very early age. Since no one wanted to make the kind of records I wanted to make, my passion was for developing expertise to make them myself. My interest wasn't in performing; I wanted to be the person in control, and for me, the studio became my realm.

Indeed, I was never really interested in being a musician at all. My focus was simply on doing whatever it took to make records, those plastic things that seemed somehow magical and romantic to me—especially the ones I found in my parents collection from the '70s, conceptual rock albums in gatefold sleeves. I didn't even know what a producer was, but I think already this is what I was aspiring to be. From the time I first started recording music, I was always thinking in terms of overdubbing and creating textures and sounds and never thought of myself as a guitar player, which I looked at as just one of the tools I need to get what was in my head out into the real world.

But by the time I was starting to learn how to get the best out of recording techniques, analog methodologies were beginning to disappear in favor of digital systems such as ADATs and hard-disk recording. Although analog prevailed in its own way, it certainly disappeared from the budget end of the market. And so while I aspired to make records that had the golden sounds of the '70s albums I loved, staying with analog simply wasn't an option. Instead, I worked hard to make digital sound analog. I didn't do this consciously, but it's clear to me now that this is what I've been doing for the last 15 years since I bought my first digital recording machines (two ADATs). Whether it's been as a recording artist with Porcupine Tree, producing a band like Opeth, or remixing King Crimson's back catalog, I've been trying to bring the sensibilities of the analog sound I love so much to digital. Not by choice, but by necessity.

While my records seem to have a good reputation for sonic quality, it hasn't been easy. The world of digital recording has been one of those triumphs of convenience and affordability over quality that the human race seems to specialize in. Even if we have something good, we will happily throw it away if someone presents us with something worse that can do the same thing a bit quicker or in greater quantities, take up a bit less space, or allow us to do it on the move. Even if it just has a sexier interface.

And its this contrast between the old and the new that I will mostly be writing about in this space. Modern recording technology versus old and how if anything, it has stunted creativity not enhanced it; compressed audio versus full resolution/5.1 listening experiences; the ascendance of millions of amateur reviews on the Net versus proper rock journalism; how the old model of two albums a year versus the new of one album every three to five years has made music less experimental and more safe. Don't even get me started on iPods.

Steven Wilson is the principal songwriter and founding member of the band Porcupine Tree, and a Grammy-nominated producer. His most recent solo album, Insurgentes, was released in 2009. For more information, visit