The world-champion guitarist with the Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple, and others outlines the techniques, attitudes and rigs behind years of famous sounds.
It's hard to think of a guitarist more widely acclaimed than BOSS artist Steve Morse. Not only was he nominated for a Grammy Award, he's won Best Overall Guitarist in Guitar Player magazine's reader poll so many times in a row, they had to remove him from eligibility!
While Morse is probably best known as the founder and guitarist of the Dixie Dregs (he's also the group's songwriter and producer), he's also one of the most versatile guitarists around. Morse's work includes everything from classical recitals to solo concerts to mega-tours as lead guitarist with Deep Purple. He's played with the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Steve Howe, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kansas, John McLaughlin, and Michael Manring, to name a few.
Steve's latest record, Structural Damage, is his sixth solo album with the Steve Morse Band on the High Street Records label and several Dregs releases are available from Dregs Records, PO. Box 639, Natick, MA. email: email@example.com, www.stevemorse.com. We talked with him soon after he'd finished the record.
Throughout his career, Steve has been known for his interesting sounds and innovative use of effects. So when we asked him about the rigs he uses to get these sounds, we were expecting him to launch into a long list of sound-altering pedals and rack units. Instead, he pointed without hesitation to a device that doesn't make a sound.
What's the sine qua non of guitar? Intonation. And for that. Morse relies on BOSS' compact TU- 12 Chromatic Tuner, a box he uses in every one of his rigs. "There are some things about it that made us give up the expensive strobe tuners we were using," Morse raves. "One is that it has LEDs and a needle, so you can see it in the dark and tune between songs when the stage is black. It can also be battery operated or externally powered. These are just the most reliable tuners in terms of being accurate. They're required equipment with the Steve Morse Band, the Dixie Dregs, and I use them with my rig on Deep Purple, too."
With that out of the way, we went for the juicy stuff: the rig he uses with Deep Purple. Surely he brings more to those gigs than to any others? "Less," comes the surprising answer, "because I don't use the guitar synth there-we have a keyboard player. The biggest rig I use is either for a solo show or with my trio."
Right. Well, Deep Purple is known for its enormous, quasi-orchestral sound: even if it's not the biggest rig of them all, doesn't that still require a lot of outboard equipment? "Just three different delay effects. The [BOSS] pedalboard consists of volume pedals to control the amount of delay that you hear. Volume pedal up means no delay, volume pedal down means full delay." Morse also uses a BOSS CE-5 Chorus Ensemble pedal with this and all his other rigs.
Why three delays? "There's a short delay, a long delay, and a sampling delay for when I play along by myself. I use a digital delay with a hold function for the sampling." Steve explains that the reason he chooses a long delay over a unit designed for looping is that he can keep layering sounds by using the delay's feedback control. Most of the dedicated echo-loop effects on the market replace their memory when they cycle back to the beginning. Despite the fixed delay time and limited length, his delay unit allows the transitions from one idea to the next to be seamless.
So Morse's rig with Deep Purple is actually quite simple. How different is his set-up with the Dixie Dregs? "Similar but with different amplifiers. With Deep Purple, we have a real Hammond organ, so I choose an amplifier that has less mid-range in it-a little more highs and lows-and that allows the organ to blend in the mix better with the guitar. With my solo band, I don't need to worry about that."
Guitar synthesis plays a significant role in Morse's work, being heard in his solo shows, his own band, and sometimes with the Dregs. He's been impressed with Roland's efforts in this department ever since being struck by the simplicity of the GK-2A pickup. "It's pretty cool," he says. You just stick it on the guitar with tape, and it works."
This simple installation allows him to "Plug right into the Roland GR-1 synth. Then I run the output of the guitar synth through a stereo volume pedal and then into the mixer. That's with a classical guitar, so l can be playing the guitar electrically and amplified, and then fade in, like, a string sound for one section just by using the volume pedal."
Steve is careful to advise fellow guitarists not to go over the top with gimmicks, but that certainly doesn't temper his enthusiasm. "If you use the synth all the time, it becomes predictable. But if you fade it in somewhere, they go, 'What was that?! The third song sounded like there was an orchestra coming in!"
And then there are the practical advantages: "On two of the albums I did I was doing some parts with a real banjo and couldn't get that great of a sound. I ended up playing the banjo through a guitar synth. That was pretty funny."
One of the hallmarks of Morse's carefully crafted sound is its clarity and punch. But unlike most guitarists. he relies solely on overdriven amps for compression when he's playing live (recording is different of course). The reason for that is his preference for as pure a signal path as possible. "The price of everything you put in-line is that you take away some of that lively feel of the guitar." Yet Morse certainty doesn't shy away from effects, and he has a couple of ways of getting the best of both worlds. The first is to use two amps: "a dry amp and an effect amp, and both should be going through the PA hopefully" he laughs. So the guitar goes straight into the dry amp "no effects, nothing through a loop." retaining the audio details while he runs the pedals through a second amp, "so you just add the effect in." To mediate these patches when he's playing he relies on a BOSS LS-2 Line Selector.
But even with the separate effects amp Steve takes care to bypass anything in the line that isn't being used. He advises readers "No matter what effect you're using, if you disconnect the battery or unplug it and the sound doesn't continue to go through it unchanged then you're not really bypassing it." Morse's recommendation is to employ a switching network like the BOSS LS-2 system he uses to take unused effects out of the chain.
Like almost all stomp-boxes Steve's BOSS CE-5 Chorus Ensembic pedal was designed to be used in-line the way guitarists typically use them: between the guitar and the amp with a balance of the dry guitar sound and the wet/effected sound. But in Morse's dual-amp set-up he wants just the wet sound from the pedal. His clever solution: "There's a mix output and a stereo output so if you plug a dummy plug into the mono or mix output you can just get the chorus-the modulated sound-coming through the other output."
This dogma also applies to his BOSS tuners. "A lot of people use the TU-12 tuners in-line. I like to run it from a preamp out where it's always getting signal or even better yet a pedal [like the BOSS FV-50 or FV-300] with a preamp output or an A/B switch for the tuner." He's careful to add that a difference is only noticeable at high volume.
The subtext to all of this is that Morse doesn't use the effects all the time. And paradoxically that's precisely why he's a guitarist known for his use of effects-you notice them because they're not always there.
In addition to being a guitarist. Steve is a prolific writer. And thats when he gets back to basics. "I work out tunes plugged into a little combo amp-the guitar cord is my only effect. I just mess with the guitar to get different colors."
In addition to his computer sequencer Steve uses a BOSS DR-Series rhythm machine while he's writing, and it's not unusual for those parts to remain on the albums he's working on. "Sometimes the click sounds so good-if I use a cowbell or something-that I just fade it in on some spots. I've done that for years."
Pre-production is important but Morse thrives on the interaction with other musicians. "When the band's here, it's easy to come up with song ideas because I have more motivation to come up with stuff that they'll like. The only album I ever did without the band was High Tension Wires, and then after it was done I had the guys play on it. I gave them a tape with drum machine and synth bass and the guys learned it and did it."
Morse's recorded guitar sound is at least as well known as his live sound. Naturally the credit for that often goes to the engineers with whom he's worked over the years. But he's also developed strong engineering chops of his own. In fact he has a comprehensive professional studio in his home.
Unlike other studios he's built in the past. Morse designed this one with an unusually large control room. "I notice that's where I spend all my time. That's where all the people hang out. and that's where the most junk accumulates." The studio contains a 24-track recorder as well as an array of outboard gear including Roland and BOSS products.
On stage Steve plays through his rig. But it's different in the studio. "Usually I'm just going into the amp no effects or anything" he explains. It's standard practice in the studio either to add the effects later or to record them on separate tracks from the dry guitars to leave room for more control when the tracks are mixed later. In the first case. that means the guitarist isn't hearing the effects while he or she is recording.
That's no big deal for Morse however; his attention is focused elsewhere. "The main thing is I want to find one micro-phone that makes the guitar sound like it fits in with the rest of the track."
Morse's technique for mic selection is an example of how his approach to getting studio guitar sounds is all but guaranteed to keep the sound fresh. While playing guitar in the control room he has several mics set up at random in front of his amp in the studio. Then he brings them up on the mixing board one mic at a time to audition them sometimes repeating the experiment with another group of mics until finally for some reason there's one mic that sounds a lot better than the others.
How much of that is due to the mic's position rather than to the mic itself? "I'd say about 20 percent is position and 80 percent is the mic. The characteristic of the sound doesn't change with positioning but positioning sure makes a difference." Steve often changes mics-and guitar cabinets-from song to song "just to have a different sound. It's a neat way to come up with a different sound no matter what your rig is."
Though Morse's guitar sound is often quite large he tends to shy away from using a second mic on the guitar for ambience.
While the room mic has been a regular part of his guitar sounds in the past, he restricts its use to situations in which he needs "a little bit of space." In that case, he uses two room mics, "crisscross, across from one another to get a confused stereo spectrum."
But usually he sticks with just the one mic on the amp. "I've been running into problems with my arrangements not having any room left in the sonic spectrum," he explains, "and ambience mics take up quite a bit of space in the spectrum, so l think the close-miking works better for me. Then I use an effect or an actual room ambience effect, like a stereo delay or just a short room sound from a good reverb."
Morse also has some interesting studio techniques for the bass guitar. Sometimes he combines a bass going direct into the console (through a direct box, of course) with the same bass going through an amp. "Doesn't even have to be a bass amp," he explains, "it could be a guitar amp with all the bass rolled off. The direct sound will have all the bottom end, and the trebly sound from the amp gives it a little bit of a honky mid-range sound. It's a different sound, a guitar-like sound."
But that's not all. The amped bass sound also gets sent to a stereo chorus or other effect, leaving the "real bottom end," as he puts it-the direct sound- dry in the center. The effect is spread out to the sides, resulting in a unique sound, and also, "a stereo bass without getting into weird phase problems. Because if you take a regular direct bass and just double it through some effect, you're going to have the bass washing into and out of phase."
One of the effects Morse uses on the bass is a vintage Roland Dimension D, "kind of like a soft chorus, but it also has a multi-combing effect; it's a complex and subtle sound that also works well with acoustic guitars." A lot of modern processors, such as the BOSS GT-5 Guitar Effects Processor, include similar sounds.
Morse is a technically savvy and up-to-date musician, a mature and experienced guitarist well known for employing the latest tools with taste. So how has his guitar arsenal changed from when he was playing before the current technological revolution?
"It hasn't changed that much! I still use a BOSS delay to add air when things sound too, stark, and I use the tone control of the guitar more than ever to shape the sounds. I strike a note with the tone control all the way on bass, and then roll it on to full treble as that note is ringing."
Nothing new under the sun? Upon further reflection, Morse realizes that there are some differences. "Twenty years ago when the Dregs were playing, it was quite a big deal just to have a working reverb in an amp. The reverbs have gotten much better-digital reverbs are so reliable compared to spring reverbs. And we didn't have dual-channel amps available, and things like having master volumes and lots of preamp outputs were pretty unheard of."
Not coincidentally, those are areas in which BOSS equipment has played a significant role. But regardless of his equipment, Steve Morse sums up the attitude that has kept him at the forefront of the musical world: "The main thing is the music. Always."
Transcribed by John D. Smith