A few moments with Steve Roach

A view of Steve Roach behind his live-performance setup.

For over three decades and with nearly 100 releases to his name, composer Steve Roach has been an influential voice in the world of ambient electronic music. Whether you listen to his solo projects or his numerous collaborations (with Dirk Serries/Vidna Obmana, Erik Wollo, and Brian Parnham, among others), it’s easy to recognize Roach’s signature sound—slow moving textures breathing deeply behind sensuously evolving grooves.

His Arizona-based Timeroom studio was designed to provide the type of environment needed for creating music with long form development. It’s a place where complex and evolving synth patches have the opportunity to gestate over days or weeks.

As an artist/producer, Steve Roach is disciplined and uncompromising in his approach to sound quality and his craft and he eschews flavor-of-the-month gadgetry. Rather, he has spent the last 30 years developing virtuosic control over his instruments, exploring and exploiting their idiosyncrasies to create a sound world that is uniquely his own.

It’s been a few years since I last spoke with Roach about his work, and I was curious to hear if his methods had changed as the industry transitions from physical releases to downloads, and from hardware to virtual instruments.

Do you mix and master your own projects? How do you keep a perspective on something you’ve been working on for a long time?

Since all my music is centered on tone and hand-shaping the pieces into form, the analog console remains the center piece of my creative process—the easel through which all my hardware synths, drum machines, modular analog and rack processors live. Mixing is part of the performance that occurs as I am carving on a piece. This can be an overdub process or a live performance direct to 2-track.

By the time the mastering stage is reached, the piece will be very close to what you would a call final mix. At this point the mastering begins with the sequence of “mixed” pieces, EQ, levels and crossfades, maybe final brush strokes with some extra tracks are applied.

The perspective at mastering is keeping the big picture of where the project has evolved to in the forefront. Also, the freedom of working in my home studio at this stage supports experimenting with different mastered versions of the project.

With the current direction that music distribution is going, has it changed how you mix and master your work?

This has no impact or influence for me. I always keep striving for the best sounding, emotional, expansive space to bask in. The creation of the work—creating the sounds and living with it all in the studio—is where it begins and ends for me.

Do you share the project with friends, label, or musical associates for feedback before making final decisions?
In all my solo work the path to the final master is shaped by trusting my own instincts: I don’t look for outside opinions. I do listen to the music in progress in many different settings, especially on my frequent long drives across the deserts between Arizona and California. In collaborations the exchange is constant.

What’s the most important part of your signal chain?

A great sounding analog board with lots of sends and input channels—40 plus—and equally, a selection of historic hardware processing—Eventide H3000, H4000, and Eclipse, and various older Lexicon reverbs. I still use a Lexicon 200, PCM 70, PCM 80 and PCM 91. Also hands-on, real-time loopers with dedicated sends for on-the-fly loop creation. It’s all centered on the sound and feel I need to be immersed in.

Are you working with hardware and software synths?
All hardware, all the time. While I have worked with soft synths over the years, no matter what, I just keep finding myself back on the boards carving with the hardware, time after time. At this point, it’s only hardware.

I love sitting at a dedicated instrument, say the Oberheim Matrix 12, and just focusing on sound exploration for hours. Out of this process, the music I create naturally evolves from the inside out with composition–improvisation and constant sound shaping all ebbing and flowing. In this mode, I will have no other instruments fired up, no computer screen on and calling out, just this one instrument and some nicely hand crafted hardware reverb (of course). After all the years of working with analog knobs, and the velvet touch and response of analog sliders, I just know this is where I want to live.

The main-room board is a 40-channel Soundcraft GB4. While this is a basic live board, it fits my way of working in real-time very well. It has a great sound and EQ with eight sends. Since the ‘80s, I have centered the studio around Soundcraft boards with just a short diversion for a few years. I started with the 200B, then the Delta 8, then a series-6000, and now the GB series.

The synths in my collection go back to the days when I knew the guys at Oberheim in Santa Monica. The essentials are two Oberheim Xpanders and a Matrix 12; Waldorf Q and Blofeld; E-mu E-Synth, E4X, and Emax II; a Nord Lead 2 (the original); Korg Wavstation, Z1, and various Electribes; and Roland JD-800 and JX3P.

In a smaller room—the analog cave—I have a Soundcraft Ghost and ProAc Studio 100 monitors that are dedicated to the analog modular obsession—a single Doepfer Monster Case, which equals four A-100 G6 racks, filled with Deopfer and other Eurorack modules. In this room I will typically build an ongoing patch that develops for months: I keep evolving the patch and recording it at various stages of its life span.

I also have several Doepfer MAQ16/3 MIDI analog sequencers in the different rooms and live set up. This is another essential hardware tool I have worked with for years. For me, the years of creating with the Oberheims and the hardware gear is where my focus and passion live.

Steve Roach's Eurorack modular system.

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