How Styx Expanded ‘The Mission’ Into New Sonic Territory: Exclusive
Styx are releasing an expanded version of The Mission today (July 27) that includes a Blu-ray with a 5.1 surround mix, three hi-res audio mixes and visualizations for all of the record's songs. The band has provided us with an exclusive Q&A featuring Tommy Shaw, producer Will Evankovich and engineer Jim Scott about the making of both the album and the new mix.
In addition, we are also premiering a video, embedded just before the below Q&A, where Shaw and Evankovich dissect Ricky Phillips' bass part on "Locomotive." "It was an unusual kind of a bass pattern that I wouldn't have thought of for this song," Shaw says. "I think Ricky appreciated that too, and added the Ricky Phillips part to it. That's the part where you here the [John] Entwistle-y and the Chris Squire-y influences. You wouldn't think of this song at the beginning as a bass-feature song, but it totally is now."
They then listen to the song and eventually isolate Phillips' part. "It's one of the signature Ricky Phillips bass tracks on the album," Evankovich says. "But he kind of did throughout this whole record. Like, every track was so personalized by him."
This is the second record to come from the Styx camp this summer. Last month, Shaw released Sing for the Day!, a concert Shaw performed with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra last year in Cleveland. The show included Styx classics like "Renegade" and "Blue Collar Man" along with tracks from his solo career ("Girls With Guns") and Damn Yankees ("High Enough"). It debuted at No. 5 on Billboard's Classical Albums chart.
Into the 5.1 Night We Ride:
The Men Behind Mixing Styx’s
The Mission in Surround Sound
By Mike Mettler
Chief Information Officer of the Global Space Exploration Program (GSEP)
As good as Styx’s 2017 studio concept album, The Mission, sounds in its stereo version, it sounds even better in its high-resolution 5.1 surround-mix — and that’s due in no small part to the creative synergy between the record’s three chief sonic architects: Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, producer/guitarist/vocalist Will Evankovich (Shaw-Blades, the Guess Who), and producer/engineer/mixmaster Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Wilco, Dixie Chicks).
Here, these three Mission mixing maestros get to the heart of the matter of how The Mission was recorded in analog and specifically mixed for the ultimate playback in the high-resolution 5.1-channel surround-sound format.
Making Sharp Sonic Choices
Tommy Shaw: In the writing process, Will and I discovered the songs had an almost “new” vintage sound to them, so we just played around with the idea of making it all sound like our favorite-sounding Styx records of the past. And those would be The Grand Illusion (1977), Pieces of Eight (1978), and Equinox (1975) — that era which you know is totally analog, since it was before CDs. We’ve gone through lots of phases since that time, but our thought for The Mission was, “Let’s see if we can accomplish the same sound as if it were a lost record from, say, 1979.” That was the idea we had in our heads the entire time.
Early on, we also thought, “What if we could get Jim Scott to mix it?” I had never met Jim before, but I just loved his work, and we always wanted to work our way “up to” Jim Scott — and it was a wish that was finally fulfilled.
The way we recorded everything was we used a lot of “old” technology with tubes in it, plus vintage microphones and EQs. Even in the demo and writing process, we tried to have it as analog-sounding as possible.
Jim Scott: The best thing about working on this record was the spirit in how Tommy and Will wanted to make it. Tommy said, “If we want to make it sound like 1979, how do we do that? Well, we perform it and we record it like it’s 1979.”
In this day and age with computers, there are “shenanigans” everywhere you look. You can tune it, you can tweak it, you can slow it down, speed it up, and make a new guitar sound. But if you’re a man in front of a microphone with one shot — or two, or three — you keep the best one, and that takes skill and talent. You don’t need 100 takes. You record it on a tape recorder, you get a vocal that you like, and you keep it on the one track.
As far as the hi-res mix goes, I was right onboard. I love the sound of analog records, and I love the sound of records not being overcompressed, or too loud, or overly tuned. I like the tape recorder better than I like the computer. I like an old microphone with a tube amp better than a modern microphone that has a USB plug on it. All we tried to do was keep it pure, keep it in tune, and play good rock & roll without any tricks. We used the technology that was available to us from the ’60s and the ’70s and we did it for real, with all our heart and soul.
Will Evankovich: In the beginning phases of this project when we wanted to have a record that sounded like it was made in 1978 or 1979, those digital things just didn’t exist at that time. And as Jim was saying to us, if you keep all the plug-ins out of the process right at the start, you get the sounds for real — with real guitar amps, great mikes, and great performances — and then it ends up being that way naturally, and on its own. These guys in Styx did it that way in 1978, and they can do it again — and they did! It was a great experience to stick to our guns throughout that whole process.
Shaw: In the songwriting process, we used Pro Tools as a matter of convenience, so we had sampled keyboards at that stage. Now, I’m no keyboard player, but I had to create some of the patterns on the computer, just to show [Styx keyboardist] Lawrence Gowan what I was looking for. And it really quickly escalated to, “Let’s go with sounds that are familiar enough that, when you hear them, you go, ‘That sounds like Styx.’” That means an Oberheim was the first thing that came to mind, then string ensembles, the ARP, the Odyssey, the Moog — things like that. Lawrence was fully immersed in it, and he really loved the idea of being able to play this vintage gear.
Evankovich: I think the most fun part about a song like “Red Storm” was creating the soundscapes that surrounded the record initially, just to give you the overall atmosphere and the vibe of it. Keith Emerson had just passed away [on March 11, 2016], and Lawrence, of course, was very inspired by him, so we went with the tone wheel of that Emerson sound there.
A lot of great things for “Red Storm” just aligned and happened all at once, and it was a lot of fun to do. It was one of the most challenging songs to write and record. To get that level of performance from everyone was extremely impressive, given everything it required.
Shaw: Another thing we did on this album was we tried to look at it as if we were a young band getting to do our first record. You always want to revert to your influences because that’s the thing that got you excited about music in the first place — like the way the Rolling Stones got into those early blues records, and how that always permeated the songs they recorded with that kind of style.
One of the things I liked about Styx when I first joined them [in December 1975] is that they were fans of Yes, and Crosby, Stills & Nash and Emerson, Lake & Palmer and other bands like that. I always thought we tried to emulate Crosby, Stills & Nash, because that’s what it felt like we did. And just recently, Will pointed out to me that one thing they didn’t do was parallels of the melody line, which was something we had actually already turned into our own vocal style early on.
We always wanted to try to get the feel of Crosby, Stills & Nash, because I remember that feeling I got when I was a teenager hearing the mood shifts in the chords. To have the opportunity to bring that into the Styx realm was really something — and I think we got pretty close to it, especially on that middle part of “Red Storm.”
Getting the "Right" Overall Mix
Scott: I would tend to start the mix by myself, and get it to the point where I liked it. Then I’d call Will and Tommy, and they would come down to listen to it. As soon as I played it for them in the room, I could tell just by looking at them it was like, “Okay, I’m not done yet.” (all laugh) They would say, “But it’s sounding really good!”
We would mix it until it was done — and that could be a lot of passes getting it to sound like it’s coming off the console, but we had to get it right coming back off the tape recorder. Remember, we mixed the record to tape, not to digital. The last step of the process was playing it back on the tape recorder, where it could all be different — different tape and different speeds, because we had two or three different tape recorders.
We had to listen back to it very, very carefully to find out which mix sounded the best. You could get it to where you really wanted it on the console, but playing it back on the tape recorder, it’s a little different. You’d have to decide if that was “good” or “bad,” wherever it lies. You’d need to do at least two or three different passes to get it right.
Also, it’s a live mix. The performance is right there on the board. You can put up that mix, walk away, and say, “Okay, we’re done.” But a week later, if you don’t like what you’re hearing, you can’t go back and start over from the very first day. That’s already gone. There’s no opening up a computer to address something digitally, because it doesn’t exist in that world. It’s a live performance mix. The last mix is an all-hands-on-deck mix where I’m thinking, “I hope to God we recorded it without any distortion.”
Shaw: We got into a groove with those mixes. We knew this music inside and out at a molecular level, because we started out with nothing before we got into mixing it with Jim. And there always came a moment where we were very, very, very close. We’d listen back to it and have just a couple of notes. Jim would go to the board and I don’t know what he would do, but then he would play it back and suddenly it was like, “Wow, that just became magical. What did you do?” And he still won’t say. (more laughter) I listened to every single one of those mixes, and we didn’t stop until it became magical.
Evankovich: There is always that moment in the room when you know it’s right. It can take hours, or it can take 10 minutes. But you know when everyone in the room gets “that look” — and that’s when you know you’ve gotten it.
The Gear-Choice Mission
Shaw: I have a lot of guitars — especially when we’re on the road — but for The Mission, we narrowed it down at home as to what we record with. I’ve got this one Gibson Les Paul Gold Top that turned out to be “the one,” so that guitar never leaves the house, because that was the “go-to” guitar.
We had a big choice of amplifiers — vintage Fenders, Marshalls, Vox, Nationals, and things like that — but we ended up using only one amp, a Bogner Shiva I got on Craigslist that was brought right to my house, and right to my front door. That amplifier was the magic one. Of course, when JY [Styx’s co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young] came and played his Strat through it, it sounded like a totally different amplifier, but it was always “the one.”
Evankovich: Yes, it was. We sometimes used the Fender Deluxe Reverb, but that was for some of the clean stuff. Back in the ’70s, Styx were usually using Marshalls, and they didn’t use anything else. They’d make whole records on one amp. As par for the course and in keeping things uniform with the way Styx made records in 1978, we just followed the “keep it simple” mantra, which was the key to this whole thing.
And there wasn’t even a very high track count either [i.e., the number of tracks recorded for each song]. We just kept it very simple, to mirror the sound of five guys up on a stage playing a song. That, in essence, was what we were really going for.
Shaw: On “Red Storm,” there are a few extra mandolin layers in there. We also mostly used some vintage acoustics. Will, wasn’t one of them a Collings?
Evankovich: We did use a Collings, but we used the Gibson J-45 from the 1940s on a lot of that stuff.
Shaw: That’s right — we used that J-45 for a lot of the sweet-sounding things on songs like “Locomotive.” That guitar was dried out. It was a wartime guitar, and it was made with love by people who were able to get the metal and the other materials to make it right. That guitar has a story of its own that really comes out in the wood.
Welcome to the "Locomotive"
Shaw: Even if you don’t read the text and see how the story’s set up, you still get a sense that this is a story being told, and that there’s drama in it. There are some places that have long pauses, for example. And when you listen to a song like “Locomotive,” there’s tension, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You’re so used to certain BPM [beats per minute] and you’ve got your click tracks going on in your head where you go, “Something should have happened right there, but it didn’t!” Me, I know the stuff that’s coming — but it still gets me every time. It puts me on the edge of my chair!
Evankovich: The soundscape at the beginning of “Locomotive” was a big tip of the hat to that “Welcome to the Machine” type of composition by Pink Floyd. After that, this forlorn, lonesome acoustic guitar comes in, and then Tommy starts singing, and it really sets up the story of “Locomotive.”
[“Welcome to the Machine,” the second track on Pink Floyd’s pivotal 1975 classic Wish You Were Here that runs 7:31, is the textbook template for the opening to “Locomotive.” On “Welcome,” an EMS VCS 3 portable synthesizer was deployed by Rick Wright and Roger Waters to create a “throbbing” sound that was followed by a single-repeat echo originally made on bass by Waters. Wright also plays Hammond organ, an ARP string synthesizer, and a Minimoog monophonic analog synthesizer on the track, while David Gilmour plays both 6-string and 12-string acoustic guitars.]
Hi-Res for One and All
Evankovich: We knew that if we were going to all the trouble of recording with these great amps and great guitars, we wanted to start at a high resolution for when it gets to that digital platform. We went to 88.2 [kHz] after getting the sounds committed to tape, and we essentially kept it at hi-res throughout the whole process for just that reason. Otherwise, what would be the point?
A lot of other guys might have given up and said, “Everyone is just going to listen to this on an MP3, so who cares?” That’s just giving up. But this hi-res movement is awesome, because it’s getting music back to where it should be and how people should listen to it, so we spent a lot of time making sure everything we did was above the line.
Shaw: We did this record so that we loved it, and, in retrospect, we realized we were asking a lot of the listener. We’re asking you to not shuffle. We’re asking you to listen to the whole Mission in its entirety, because there’s a concept. It’s an album, and it’s a story that follows a linear path from song to song to song.
I grew up most of my life listening to music on vinyl, and you didn’t shuffle vinyl. You put it on, listened to it as it came at you, and you’d hopefully stick around long enough to want to listen to Side 2. And we wanted you to flip it over. If we got you to get up and switch it to Side 2, then we’d done our job.
We were so deeply immersed in it, it really was like we had undertaken a mission to Mars! Every decision we made was life or death to the project. And we decided early on we wanted it to have a flow to it, so both Will and Jim created these little soundscapes that tied everything together for you to align yourself with us for 42 minutes and 8 seconds. That’s how long this record is. Seriously, we always thought of it as an album, and we want you to engage with it on both sides. And we want you to have it in the highest resolution as possible.
Scott: I have the added advantage of having not produced the album, so I didn’t know the whole story going in. Tommy and Will explained it to me, but I didn’t listen to the whole album before I mixed it. I didn’t get the whole arc of the story that way — I listened to the songs as they came at me. I looked at it as, “My job for today is to mix this great song.” Without knowing the complete story, my whole thought process wasn’t, “Well, where does this fit into a mission to Mars?” My thought was, “Man, this is a great song! This song is about relationships. This song is about love. This song is about loss. This is classic, great songwriting poetry.”
These are all beautiful songs, and at the end of the work, you do segue into making it about the whole journey. But the best thing for me was taking each song and loving it before I knew the whole story. I didn’t know where the end was, because I was in the middle of it. I didn’t know how it was going to end up.
Creating the soundscapes and putting the extra music in between the songs was born out of studio fun. It wasn’t just hanging around with these guys and figuring out how to make outer space sounds without flying into outer space with microphones — it was pure fun. And that was the best part about it — not knowing the whole story until the whole thing revealed itself.
Shaw: By the time we were in the mixing phase, we realized just how dedicated Jim was to making sure we did that. I can tell you just from being there that there was not a digital plug-in used at any time. There are lots of little areas where there were delays — especially in the 5.1 surround mix — but every delay you hear was done on a tape machine.
There were two separate reel-to-reel machines in the room, and any time we wanted that tape-delay sound, we counted on Jim to roll the tape machine and do the calculations for it — and he usually did them in his head. There’s a reason those delays have such a “lovely” sound to them, so if you’re wondering what is it that makes it sound that way — that’s tape saturation.
Scott: A great example is Pink Floyd, because everybody remembers their song “Us and Them.” You’ve got to find a tape recorder that’s going to run at the proper speed to give you the delay at the proper time. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. And sometimes, when the band is playing, they speed up and then they slow down, and the delay time is off. That’s luck of the draw, so sometimes, you just have to figure it out.
[“Us and Them,” the second track on Side 2 of Pink Floyd’s seminal 1973 opus The Dark Side of the Moon, runs 7:51 and features a number of dramatic repeats of David Gilmour singing of the words “us” and “them” by way of a very long tape echo that moves from the left towards the right on each successive repeat in the original stereo mix.]
You know what tape recorders are? They’re the original samplers. We would record one of the synthesizers at a certain speed, like at 30 inches per second [or “ips”]. If we played it back at 15 inches per second, it was an octave down. If we played it back at 7½ inches per second, that was another octave down, and so on. And also the other way, if you wanted to go octaves up.
We were able to keep the harmonic information the same but trade octaves at will since we had the tape recorders and the time and the feel to do it. We were just running around starting and stopping tape recorders, trying to get the “right” one. It’s all about putting the components together. There’s no “science” to it. You just have to hope you push the button at the right time and have the right speed at the right regeneration. It takes a minute, and studio time is expensive. You gotta get lucky, and you gotta know what you’re doing. When it all fits together, that’s when you achieve your goals.
And when you’re talking about effects, volume is your friend. Volume is an illusional effect. It’s how records were always mixed. (Uses hands to give visual for directional cues) “You, bass player — stand closer to the microphone. Drummer, you’re over there. Singer, you come forward.” It’s all just volume, and that’s what mixing is. Between that and tape delay, plus room ambience and some sort of a reverb plate, those are the only effects we really used on the record.
Into the Night We Ride: Creating "The Outpost"
Evankovich: The original production for the beginning of “The Outpost” just wasn’t working, though the rest of the track was really awesome. Lawrence and Todd [Sucherman, Styx’s drummer] put their heads together and said, “What if, at the onset, we have this Oberheim [keyboard part] swelling, and then there’s this drum machine?”
In the late 1970s, there just weren’t that many options for drum machines, but by 1980, there was this thing called the Linn drum machine, which was one of the very first ones out there. We said, “Well, why don’t we get that?” We created a Linn drum loop, and they added an Oberheim pad over it. The impact of the chorus and pre-chorus really comes on strong, so that idea worked out great!
[The first Linn drum machine, the LM-1, was created by noted American engineer Roger Linn. The LM-1 was manufactured by Linn Electronics and initially appeared on the market in 1980, and it’s been acknowledged as the first programmable drum machine to use acoustic drum samples. The Linn is best known for being used on early-’80s recordings by the likes of Prince, Human League, Giorgio Moroder, and Gary Numan, and it was followed up on in 1982 by the LM-2, a.k.a. the LinnDrum.]
Scott: The Linn drum sounds were pretty low-grade and not all that high-end. And the part they used it on wasn’t really glued together properly because it was just so (pauses). . . straight. I basically took their recording and doused it a couple of times through a tape recorder and compressors just to glue it together better and round off all the edges on each side of the waveform. And that made for a sweeter sound, which was ultimately where we were going with it.
Shaw: We really liked it too because it wasn’t as “predictable” of a sound, and it went along much better with the overall sweeter sound of the record. Once that was all done, my favorite thing was the synth opening. One night we had gone out to dinner, and when we came back, Jim brought the track back to us — and all of a sudden, it had changed. Jim had taken that synth sound, and varispeeded it down. I’m still not sure how he got that all blended together, but it really gave it that eerie drum sound we had been looking for there — that more of a “space drum” kind of thing.
The Mission in 5.1: Summation
Evankovich: I hope we can keep listening to recordings where we’re able to keep turning the volume up and not have it kill us. That’s what happened with some of the recordings of the last ten years, given the resolution of some of those recordings. If we can just keep on that quest of turning the volume up and maintaining that high standard of sound quality, I think we’ll do real well.
Shaw: Just as Will said, I don’t want to give up hope on turning up the volume and being rewarded for it. And I don’t want our music just being available as an MP3 either. This 5,1 mix of The Mission is living proof that it’s not just “hope,” but that this is really happening now. If you want to be sitting in the catbird seat behind the console to really listen to what we’ve done, you can get these files, the ones we approved. There’s now a platform for it, and there’s gear out there you can get to experience it in that way. This is happening now, and I’m so glad about that. It sounds much better, and you don’t have to settle for anything less. I’m so glad that day is here.
Scott: I agree with Tommy and Will. I’m glad people care enough about audio to want to upgrade their listening experiences. In the last ten years, the visual world has so dramatically improved, so it’s good to see how the audio world has caught up to that. I love the art of music, and I’m lucky enough to make my living working with the best songwriters in the world. These people are all artists, and they can’t stop making their art. It’s who they are. I’m in it for the art, and if it can upgrade itself, that’s fantastic.