“So, that’s how you do it!” - A technical Q & A session with Steve Hackett’s keyboards man and technical wizard, Roger King. Grilling conducted by Frank Rogers. Photographs: Jo Hackett, Stuart Barnes, Andy Brailsford, Albert Gouder, Richard Nagy and Alan Hewitt.
Roger, first of all many thanks for taking the time to work with us on this E-mail Q & A session, especially as you are currently enjoying a well earned rest after along session on the road with Steve’s Genesis Revisited II tour.
Roger is the keyboard player with Steve Hackett and as the Q & A informs us, has worked with Steve for over twenty years as well as on other projects.
For those people reading this, I have been learning to play keyboards for about two and a half years and around six months ago I contacted Steve Hackett with regard to how some of the sound samples were created for certain tracks and in particular Entangled. Steve kindly forwarded my email to Roger and Roger has been kind enough to continue email contact since so I thought it might prove interesting to put some questions to Roger for TWR.
FR: One thing I would like to start with by asking just as a matter of clarity, as my Internet research says that you were born in Tucson Arizona, how true is that?
RK: It’s not true at all, I am a product of North London . I can’t imagine where that came from!
FR: For us people reading this on TWR we are probably familiar with you sat behind the keyboards on stage with Steve Hackett, but can you tell us briefly a little bit about the early days of your playing history. How it started etc? How you learned your trade?
RK: I don’t really have a playing history . I learned piano from about the age of six and then took up church organ at about fourteen or so, and by the time I was eighteen or nineteen I was a decent player but I got into engineering in my early twenties and let the playing side of things slip really quite badly. Shortly after I started working with Steve in 1995/96 (as a keyboard player/programmer/engineer) he asked if I fancied doing some gigs. That would have been on the Tokyo Tapes tour with Chester Thompson, Ian MacDonald and John Wetton . I said no because my playing wasn’t up to it but set about a programme of heavyweight practice, and after a couple of years felt able to say to Steve that if he asked again the answer would be yes . I still have to practice hard to keep up with the rest of the band to be honest.
FR: In the early days as quoted on Steve’s website it says… “ Roger spent the first twenty years of his professional life basking in the anonymity of the recording studio, making records with Gary Moore, Jamelia, Snoop Doggie Dog … “ What do you remember about those days? How did it all start?
RK: I started working with Island Music in the mid 1980’s as an in-house engineer at their demo studio in Hammersmith and from there drifted into work at the Fallout Shelter (Island Records’ studio) so what I remember most clearly is the absence of daylight! Most engineers from that era led an unhealthy troglodyte existence - we were all deathly pale! I must have recorded several hundreds of songs though, and learned a huge amount. I went freelance in the early 1990’s and spent some time programming and recording film music. It was a fantastic opportunity to work with orchestras at major studios (George Martin wandered in to the control room at AIR Studios after a session to ask if everything was OK? George Martin! How cool is that?!) but we worked obscenely long hours and I got tired of the budget and schedule squeeze that the music always endured even on big budget films. I spent the latter half of the Nineties doing house mixes and trying to establish myself as a songwriter, only with moderate success. Some of my credits are misattributed though, I never worked with Steve Roach, for example.
FR: The first evidence of your work with Steve that I can find is on the Guitar Noir album but how did you meet Steve and how did it come about that you joined forces to become part of Steve’s team?
RK: The first proper work I did with him was on Genesis Revisited. My then manager sent a speculative mail-out to record labels and artists’ managers one of whom was Steve’s. I think she only included Steve because the management address was near mine but it turned out that he needed an engineer/programmer urgently and it all went from there. I’ve been working with him for nearly two decades now - sheesh!
FR: Other than Steve, who are the other artists you have enjoyed working with?
RK: I spent a lot of time working with my good friend Lee Bennett (then AKA: Stepz) Lee and I did remixes for The Backstreet Boys, Snoop Dog and a fair few less well known artists and I wrote and produced for Peter Andre and Jamelia. We had a little studio in Kilburn (North London) - it all fizzled out eventually but it was a blast while it lasted. I did a little bit of keyboard programming for Keith Emerson once - it was only two or three days but he was a lot of fun to spend a bit of time with.
FR: The album credits mention producing, mastering, engineering etc, can you tell us a little more of the work you do besides the keyboarding that we see…
RK: Well, the modern way of music production is so focused on the computer that it is pretty much inevitable that there is one person who has hands-on responsibility for putting the material together . With Steve this usually means building tracks up with drum programming, guide bass parts and so on, and recording guitars and vocals before getting the other musicians involved.
Recording and mixing have historically been separate processes but we usually find ourselves building the mix as we go along - it’s not without its drawbacks but at least we are never chasing an elusive quality of the “demo” or a 2am rough mix.
FR: You have worked with Steve for around twenty years now and as we see you are at home behind the keyboard rig. Over that time what keyboards have you used and is there a favourite one and if so, why?
RK: I arrived after the era of the Hammonds, Mellotrons and Minimoogs sadly so I never had the (perhaps dubious) pleasure of a Wakemanesque keyboard rig. I had a Sequential Pro One which I loved and now regret selling and a Studio Electrics ATC1 Minimoog-type synth module that I should have kept. The EMU E4K sampling keyboard was central to the way I organised my stage set up for years. My favourite though is the Roland FP7-F piano that I have at home. I am not much of a pianist but I can happily spend hours hacking away at a bit of Bach.
FR: From our conversations you have now moved to a more software based keyboard rig. What made you decide to go down that route? Would you like to tell us a little bit about the rig you currently use?
RK: I have four controllers, (two weighted and two “synth” action) . These control Apple Mainstage running on a Macbook Pro. I used to use a rack of synth modules but Mainstage allows me to use the same soft instruments that I use in the studio and is infinitely more versatile. , both for configuring the keyboards layouts and for signal routing and processing. I think it sounds better too. It took me a while to pluck up the courage to go down the software route and I have spent countless hours soak-testing the system but so far it has served me very well.
FR: Software systems have taken off massively, what software do you use? For the Hackett-related stuff?
RK: I record and mix everything in Logic. There are better mixing platforms available (Pro Tools in particular) but Logic is great for building music from the ground up and it makes no sense to pull it all apart again to transfer to another system. I have more audio processing plug-ins than I need and my allegiances change quite readily but for instruments I have only a handful that I rely heavily on - Logic’s own B3 Emulation and EXS sampler and Pianoteq (piano modelling), U-HE Diva (analogue-style synthesis) and Mtron Pro (for just about everything that has been consigned to Mellotron tapes). I reckon that these five instruments produce up to 95% of my keyboard sounds now, both in the studio and on stage.
FR: The sound samples you use for the Hackett/Genesis stuff , do you use pre-set sounds or do you have to work with them to get what you want?
RK: Presets? How dare you! (laughs). Well, I suppose you could call the Mellotron sounds presets. But I find trawling through patch lists counter productive and I prefer to get my hands dirty. Having said that, there are favourites that I keep going back to -mainly samples and modelled sounds that have strong character.
FR: You are currently enjoying some well-earned rest after the first leg of the tour which concluded in Japan. For those of us, me included ,who have never been involved in going on tour, what is a typical day like?
RK: We try to organise tours on a four on one off basis. That’s four gigs in a row, one day off. It’s the optimum arrangement for keeping momentum without getting too knackered. So a typical gig day schedule is: get up, breakfast, travel, late lunch, sound check, dinner, gig, beer, bed. With a bit of luck there is time to get out for a coffee and there tends to be quite a bit of hanging about.
FR: Do you get to see much of the places you visit?
RK: Usually no. We had the luxury of three gigs in the same venue in Tokyo and had a bit of time to get out and about and it is not usually possible to arrange a perfect tour schedule so we do sometimes have two ore three days’ downtime here and there , but generally it is a bit of a grind.
FR: Who decides or what processes do you go through to decide what tracks to play in the live set?
RK: Steve mainly but with a bit of input from me and the rest of the band and some suggestions from Jo. There is such a lot of material to draw from.
Working with Steve…
FR: I was reading somewhere on Steve’s website that he and Jo do a lot of writing together for new material, then they present it to you, how does that work?
RK: Jo’s contribution is mainly on lyrics but I am not privy to the process. Steve usually brings in the rudiments of a song - chords, melody, and lyrics in various stages of completion - and some idea of how it should sound. , and we work on the arrangement from there, building keyboard arrangements, programming drums and so on. Some songs are built in the studio from smaller fragments and the process is usually pretty organic anyway. Nothing is ever finalised until the masters are sent off.
FR: Are there any particular tracks that stand out for you, as tracks you have enjoyed working on…?
RK: I had a ball with Turn This Island Earth. It’s a bit of a Marmite track with fans I think but it’s a pretty good song and we did some unusual things with it. I have a personal attachment to She Said Maybe (from Beyond The Shrouded Horizon) largely because I wrote it to be honest but also because I particularly like the way the synth and guitar work together. And from a purely sonic perspective. , I’m really proud of the way the 5.1 mix of Tall Ships (from the Squackett album) turned out. It’s a real shame that 5.1 systems haven’t really taken off -done properly it can produce a musical experience you can’t get from stereo.
FR: Do you have a personal favourite track?
RK: In terms of an end result; Can-Utility & The Coastlines from Genesis Revisited II is a standout. I like the song anyway but something about the individual performances and the mix just hits the spot.
FR: How do you find working on Steve’s material as compared to the other types of material you have worked with? Was it very different?
RK: Not so different really. The musical styles may vary but my methodology has remained pretty much the same for some years now. Perhaps the biggest challenge with Steve though, is to pull together a number of disparate ideas into a unified whole - it was more often the case on films and House mixes that I worked hard to extract the maximum value from too few ideas.
FR: Is there anything you can tell us about the future? Any proposed thoughts? Ideas? Things to look forward to etc…?
RK: I know Steve is chomping at the bit to get stick into the next solo album - I guess we will be back in the studio in August - but touring commitments are pretty heavy at the moment. I keep meaning to do a solo album.
My thanks to Roger for taking time to help with this Q & A session and I wish him well for the rest of the tour.
And our thanks to you, Frank for organising this fascinating look at Roger’s work. For further details of Roger’s recorded output, check out : www.artistsdirect.com