This album really epitomises what is achievable on a minimal budget, in a home studio, using basic everyday microphones and a MacBook Pro running off the shelf audio production software.
That said, there is one essential component you can’t purchase that makes this possible. That is the artistic creativity, vision and outright ability that can stand shoulder to shoulder with more well known contemporaries in the business.
Introducing Steve J Curtis (SJC), 40 years in the business, pro guitarist & composer of Americana, Blues and Rock music, including TV advertising, session work and live gigging. He also plays dobro, lap steel, mandolin, bass guitar and probably anything else with strings attached.
Let me set the scene. I had just read an outstanding review of the new album from SJC on the website of Alan Cackett (AC) www.alancackett.com where it receives 4 and a half stars out of five. Now, this man is a legend in the music business and is the 47th member of The British Country Music Hall of Fame. By the way, BCMA honours those musicians, radio presenters, performers and industry figures who have or still are playing a major role in supporting and advancing the fortunes of country music in the UK.
So when Alan Cackett reviews an album you can rely that it has been played through a number of times and the review is under pinned by a wealth of knowledge and personal experience Alan brings to the table. In other words it has weight and credibility.
Many of you will know Alan as the former editor of Maverick magazine, but his involvement with music, and more specifically country music goes back a lot further than that … he’s been involved in music, one way or another, for almost 50 years. As a magazine publisher/editor, freelance journalist, compiling CD track-listings, writing liner notes, writing and compiling two encyclopedias, concert and gig promoter, festival organiser, artist manager, radio presenter, tour organiser/agent and in PR.
There were a number of observations in the review that caught my attention, which I can quote by kind permission. The full album review can be read at www.alancackett.com Thank you Alan.
The anticipation of what is coming up is well conveyed by the Alan Cackett review:
“Each of the album’s songs conveys the sense of being fully in its right place, with Steve’s skilled songwriting and expert multi-instrumentalism creating music that is big, bold and expansive”
Well, almost on queue an email drops in from Steve J Curtis asking if he could send me a copy of his latest album, DESERT BIRD.
The reply didn’t take any consideration and a package with a typed note arrived by return post.
DESERT BIRD jumped the queue of new unplayed CDs. I would add these are purchased CDs as I still like owning physical music like CDs and vinyl, but I’m well behind on my listening.
As up-tempo opener, In My Arms Tonight, started to spin, I immediately cranked up the volume, conjuring up images and exhilaration of motoring down Sunset Boulevard with the roof down and audio player spinning. The energy of a full live band and fluidity of Steve leading on guitar and vocals. A real feel good, catchy opener, nicely recorded and setting the scene for the album unfolding. I still enjoy sitting back and listening to an album in its entirety from start to finish.
Looking at the liner notes and rather taken back, I read that SJC played all the instruments, arranged, recorded, produced, mixed and mastered everything at his home studio, aptly named Creation Station Studio. The full band live sound so well captured you would never have known without the liner note.
Recalling Alan’s review where he says:
“This is a top-quality recording, produced by Steve in his own Creation Station Studio, situated in his Suffolk home”
Got me thinking, I had to find out more about the technical side of the album.
SJC was chuffed at my interest of the technical side so we had a chat and some of the production details were revealed.
Jonathan > Good to catch up with you again Steve. You know it’s been too long. I still have fond memories of the live show you played at Little Rabbit Barn back in 2011. Seems a life time away since.
SJC> Yes you too, Jonathan. I recall the gig but remember you contacting me soon after the gig as you had an interview with Chris Rea for a feature in Maverick Magazine.
Jonathan> Yes, Steve, such a milestone for me as was probably the earliest fan of The Great Man, when he probably would have preferred someone more attractive tagging along!
He seldom grants interviews, especially face to face, so it really was a huge privilege. It was probably a debt of gratitude for over the hundred live gigs and years of support from 1978.
SJC>That was seriously cool!. He has been such an influence for me from the first time I was given a copy of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BENNY SANTINI. I suppose being just a country boy, I was taken with Just One of Those Days and I loved the guitar playing on that track but it was his voice that drew me in. Even called my first band Ace of Hearts as loved that song so much from WIRED TO THE MOON.
Jonathan> Brilliant Steve. We could chat about Chris Rea for hours. You know, I really must post the full interview some time. Chris was so happy to chat and it was only cut short when his publicist gave us the time’s up signal. We had already gone well over the hour that was scheduled.
Jonathan>Now Steve, I’m particularly intrigued by the title DESERT BIRD and the striking cover of a Desert Eagle, if I’m not mistaken. How did that come about.
SJC> As for the title song Desert Bird, I wanted something slightly different in terms of style to slot into the running order of the album. Something bluesy, but with an Americana edge and theme. I started tinkering around with some finger picking and the image of a bird of prey circling in the sky during the Dust Bowl era came into my mind, and I literally scribbled most of the words down in an instant.
It was the last song I wrote for the album. It took a couple of hours to shape it into the song it became, and I was really pleased with it.
Ironically, a couple of days after writing it, I saw a Ken Burns programme series on the PBS America channel about the Dust Bowl and it just seemed to validate what I was trying to do somehow. That probably sounds daft, but there you go!
Jonathan> The cover too is bold and striking in it’s simplicity. I see from the credits it is a painting by Greta D Granger, your partner. Yes, tell us how that came about.
SJC> When I started thinking about the artwork for the album, I didn’t want a ‘cheesy-grin” photo of me on it, so I thought how about having a picture of a bird of prey on the front cover and name the album “Desert Bird”.
Greta, as well as being a great guitarist and singer in her own right, is also a wonderful watercolour artist, so I just asked her “could you paint a bird for me?” She checked out a few photos and came up with the Desert Bird painting, which I think is fabulous.
Jonathan>So cool, to keep everything in house and I see the album has been arranged, performed, recorded and produced by yourself from your home studio, presumably evolving from a low budget lock down project.
SJC> Low budget is an understatement!
Jonathan> I can imagine that work dwindled during that period.
Take us through the process, how it evolved and how many hours you put into it.
SJC> I had finished recording an album of instrumentals for a Swiss publisher the back end of last year (2020), had a little break from recording over Christmas, then in the second week of January, decided to record an album for myself.
I had already written Home Bound Traffic, Cold November Day and the instrumental Red Kite a couple of years previously. They were never put on an album, so I included them in this collection. I started writing the other songs and was tracking during the day (obviously I wasn’t going anywhere because of Covid), then February 17th I had a knee replacement which kept me away from recording for a couple of weeks. I actually finished tracking the songs about the third week of March.
Jonathan>Wow, so the other ten songs came in quick succession.
“It (the album) stands out next to anything coming from the major studios in Nashville, London or wherever in the world…..this is a top quality recording”…..Alan Cackett
Jonathan >How did you achieve this on your low budget. Do you have a stash of esoteric microphones.
SJC> Ha,ha, that’s wishful thinking.
Jonathan> What DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), plug-ins, and monitor equipment did you use and what recording techniques.
SJC> Very simple set up: MacBook Pro running Logic Pro X. Interface is a Focusrite 2i2. Monitors are Yamaha HS50’s. I used an Audio Technica AT3035 Condenser mic for the Vocals/Acoustic Guitar/Dobro and Mandolin. It’s a cheap-ish mic ( around £130)
For Electric Guitar I used my Strat into an amplifier ( Fender Mustang 111 V2 ) and mic’d it up with a Shure SM57.
Jonathan> Did you use any outboard gear (recording hardware)
SJC> No outboard gear apart from guitar amp, and Yamaha HS50’s.
Jonathan> I’m amazed…. slap me with a moldy turnip and colour me flabbergasted!
The recording equipment is all inexpensive. Infact, I’m looking at the same Focusrite 2i2 above my laptop. Clearly the value is in the instruments and guitar amplifier. Have you used a lot of acoustic treatment and eq’d your room from where you listen to your monitors.
SJC>I am working in an untreated room, apart from a couple of quilts hung up to dampen the room a bit.
Jonathan> Again, you surprise me, but it sounds good so you must have worked hard on mix translation…testing the mix on other systems.
SJC> Yes. As you will know, this is the tricky bit. I have access to two different domestic Hi-Fi systems, another high end system, the car stereo, and I would also create mp3s and listen to them on my phone and bluetooth the phone signal to a portable speaker. The differences in sound on such an array is staggering. Some instruments would pop out of the mix more on one system than on another, and as for the bottom end! Nightmare!! In the end, you just have to get the best overall sound you can get and hope for the best! I am sure I wouldn’t have had half the mixing problems I had if I were working in Abbey Road ! Ha!
Jonathan> Maybe another set of equally difficult choices and decisions. But what fun! Would so like to have a guided tour of Abbey Road.
Jonathan> What resolution did you record 24/48, 24/96khz or other.
SJC> 24bit / 48khz – I would create a stereo Master Mix, then import that Mix into a new project and Master the track using the same resolution
Jonathan> Just take us back in the process a few stages. When you have finished tracking, how do you approach mixing all the stems and what effects were used in the mixing.
SJC> Again, very simple: I mixed everything ‘in the box’ in other words in the MacBook using the mixer that is part of Logic Pro X.
Effects-wise, I would apply simple EQ and Compression on anything that required it, and used a couple of Logic’s Reverbs and Delays.
During the whole process, I wanted to try and create the feel of a 4/5 piece band playing together in the studio. I tried to keep everything sounding as natural as possible.
Jonathan> You certainly have created the sound and live feel.
What are your thoughts listening back from the physical cd.
SJC>There are a few things I would change. I don’t think anyone could ever be 100% happy with a mix and it always sounds different when you give it a bit of time and distance between listenings. I am working in an untreated room (apart from a couple of quilts hung up to dampen the room a bit) so I am reasonably happy with the results. I know I have a lot more to learn about how my speakers sound, how the EQ/Compression plugins work and, when they are applied to tracks, how the resultant sound interacts with the other tracks around them within the mix. It’s a fascinating journey and one I am so glad I started.
Jonathan> Well it’s certainly been fascinating to catch up with you again and thanks for the insight into the making DESERT BIRD in your Creation Station Studio.
“This is a real good collection of country-rockers, rootsy rock and soulful ballads…….Overall, this album is full of direct, stylistically varied music …warm and engaging … cohesive, yet full of twists and turns, that keeps you hooked on every word and note you hear”…….Alan Cackett.
Finally, how would folk go about obtaining a copy of the new album
SJC>It can easily be ordered online through Bandcamp – either a hard copy CD, or as a Digital Download, or both. The link is below. As soon as someone orders it I get a notification and the CD is dispatched by 1st Class post the same day.
Or, customers can email me direct, (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone me on 07754 100777
Jonathan>Thank you Steve, it was great to catch up with you again, we wish y’all and the new album well.
See you on the road again. As we say here at Little Rabbit Barn ‘keep music live’
CREDITS: Alan Cackett for use of quotes from his review www.alancackett.com