Phil Soussan: Music Maker
British-born artist, Phil Soussan, moved out to California some 30 years ago, at which time it was pretty rare to bump into a fellow Brit making a career in music in LA. Now, of course, "it's all become very transient," Soussan tells Headliner.
"We saw a lot of change in the 2000s," reflects Soussan, who's been involved in so many aspects of the music biz: administration, business, creative, and even consultancy. "It means I see it from all kinds of different angles; studios are shutting down basically because the model changed: you used to build a studio to get the business, now you build the studio because you have the business. In the same way that has happened, artists' business has changed also; they wear two or three different hats now, and they have to!"
Soussan is a renowned bassist as well as producer, and has worked with many artists in his time. He also performs regularly in Vegas on the Raiding the Rock Vault show, which is very much a family affair when it comes to the musicians. So actually, he has quite the hat rack, too.
"[smiles] Yeah, the Vegas show we do has been really enjoyable, as we are all still very much working musicians; it's a rotating thing that we have," he explains. "With a lot of the Vegas shows in general, once you get caught up, it's like groundhog day! But what makes Raiding the Rock Vault exciting is that we come and go when we can; people come in and out from a small basket of musicians."
Bad Company's Howard Leese, for example, is one of the guitar players on the show, and he's currently out with the band for a couple of months.
"But then he'll come back and bring a different vibe to the show when he can, you know?" Soussan says. So that's what keeps it fresh, then? "Yeah, that's exactly it; the whole thing was the brainchild of [British music managers] Simon Napier Bell and Harry Cowell, so there is a lot of excitement every time there's a soccer game on! [laughs]"
Conversation turns to music production, and how Soussan was one of the early adopters of the whole 'home studio' concept:
"I built a home studio right at the beginning, in the early '90s; I was so proud to have a 24-track studio in my house working with ADAT, then I started bringing in projects that I could produce. As a writer, you need to have that recording facility, especially if you want to move into production."
This eventually led to Soussan approaching Digidesign (around 2000); he wanted to learn all about Pro Tools.
"They said, 'that's very nice, but we don't teach anybody'," Soussan recalls, with a smile. "But Digidesign knew who I was, so they agreed to train me for a couple of weeks up in Palo Alto, and they paid me, too. During those two weeks, I learned everything about it, in exchange for me spreading the word, letting people know what Pro Tools was all about; and over the next few years, I was probably responsible for close to half of Digidesign's new business in LA. New studios, artists, all sorts."
After a while, Soussan realised this wasn't really for him; he wanted to get into production, which at the time seemed like such a closed shop, he explains:
"You couldn't become a producer unless you were a tea boy coming up the ranks, and I wanted to try and shorten that process; and sure enough, people like Journey and [multi Grammy-winning producer] Al Schmitt called me up asking me how to work Pro Tools, so I was able to help them to a certain degree, with a lot of mixing and mastering work. It led me into that side of the industry.
"The idea that someone could take five takes, cut out the best bits, and build a fantastic take out of it, like you can today, is not something we used to experience in the studio! We had to cut the track in one take, and three minutes into the song, everyone would be looking at each other, hearts in their mouths, thinking, 'hopefully no one will screw up here, as we're so close!' That excitement has gone out of the recording process, and it's been replaced by a kind of convenience; and that is something that made DAWs very appealing."
We chat a little about Soussan's live setup, and he talks about the evolution in wireless technology, how it's made his life a lot easier:
"I was always familiar with Lectrosonics as a wireless standard in the film and broadcast industries, but I hadn't seen too much of it around on the music side of things," he explains. "Many of the systems we used were analogue, and when digital started happening, it all sounded pretty thin: for guitar players, they would describe them as having no body; and for bass players, they seemed to have no punch anymore. I tried all the usual suspects, and still have most of them! [laughs] But I reached out to a guy I know, who is one of the Lectrosonics reps in the US, and we spoke about some of the new systems they were promoting for guitar and bass; that was the the IS400 [wireless instrument system] at the time. I tried one out, and I was just blown away."
It's not just that Lectrosonics kit is totally indiscernible from a cable, Soussan says; it's the whole approach to the technology that seals the deal:
"They are way ahead of the game. Many music systems are now going into the 2.4GHz spectrum, and that's really stupid, as there's so much going on there. While it works, I don't think it sounds that great. But Lectrosonics nailed it, as they have this hybrid technology, and with that Steve Jobs philosophy: 'no-one really wants to know what's going on behind the doors, they just want to see that it works, and they want it to be simple'. With Lectrosonics, you don't have 150 channels to choose from, you can have 3,000 if necessary, so you can always be sure of finding a channel that is clean and free, even if you have multiple systems.
Overall reliability is another major advantage, Soussan reveals:
"My wireless system sits tucked behind my bass amp, and I can go anywhere in the auditorium and it never cuts out once, not ever – it's insane! And I am running it on medium power too. It's just very impressive. After talking with Karl [Winkler] and the people at Lectrosonics, I started looking at some of the more mobile systems, so went with the [Lectrosonics] LT transmitter and LR receiver. And the LR is tiny! Two AA batteries, and it does just the same thing. It's also available in the B1 frequency, so I can take it anywhere in the world, and it's rock solid, and fits into my pocket! Because it's so small, I can just take the LR, add a bit of velcro on the bottom, attach it to a pedalboard, and I'm done. Fantastic!"
One more point Soussan is keen to make is the safety aspect of using wireless as opposed to wired:
"We do shows in places where we have no experience or knowledge of the local crew or the venue, so we don't know what's going on. If you're not careful, you can become a fuse between the PA system and the bass amp - and it happens! The best result is, you have a nasty burn on your lip; and it can be far worse than that, of course. So wireless is not just a convenience, it becomes a safety solution."
Life is busy for Soussan; when he isn't on the road, or performing in Vegas, he is busy working on his latest album. But he wouldn't want it any other way:
"Like I said earlier, you have to have a few hats," he concludes. "On the music side of it, it's always a combination of writing, studio work, and playing live; that's the trilogy right there, and as long as none of those are missing, it's all good!"