Updated: Sep 19
Throughout his 40-year career, electronic music master Steve Roach has guided his audience on a spiritual journey to the innermost depths of the soul, and the unimaginable possibilities of sound.
It is hard to fathom how Steve Roach can maintain his creative output when you realize just how productive he is. He works constantly on new material, recording everything to disk so that nothing is lost. "Sometimes I'll go to the studio just to jam and two hours later I'll think, 'That could have been a concert right there.' That is why I record everything so when those magical moments occur I have it on tape", he says. "I am obsessed with sound and the creative process". There is no question that Steve is a prolific composer. He has released nearly 200 albums, including two Grammy-nominated albums for Best New Age Album of the Year, his 2017 album Spiral Revelation and his 2018 Molecules of Motion. But that is just a small sampling of the recordings he has made. "I have banker's boxes filled with hundreds of CD-Rs, DAT tapes, and cassettes of archived material", he explains. "Many times, I'll be working on some new material, and I'll remember that I recorded something similar before. I like to combine previously recorded material with the current music I'm working on if there is some continuity".
There was a time when Steve wasn't allowed to release new music. "When I started in the early '80s, record labels would limit how often you could release new music. They would invest a lot in an album and wanted to get as much as they could out of it", he says. Now that he is free from that system, he can release as much music as he wants on sites like Bandcamp. "It is a great time to be a musician", he continues. Steve has a subscription-based site where he releases a new album every month, many compiled from 40 years of archival material he has saved.
Steve's passion for creativity may be a bit extreme, but it has led him to explore many avenues of music, with albums spanning a wide range of sounds and approaches, from ambient drones, melodic sequencer music, world music, ambient guitar, live-looping, and many more. Over the years he has refined his studio to accommodate any direction his creative mood may lead him. "This whole house is set up as a studio", he says of his Timeroom studio. "Everything is connected and switched on at all times, so it is ready to go when I am". His main room has a 56-channel analog mixing board that Steve uses as an instrument itself. "The mixing board is like a painter's palette. I use it to paint sonic soundscapes by bringing in a part here and fading out an instrument there. I do a lot with external effects to shape the sound and create movement", he says describing one of the processes he uses. Not one to sit in front of a computer and compose with a mouse and keyboard, Steve is in constant motion. "I have to move when I am working. I don't even like to have chairs in most of my studio spaces. I need to be able to go where the energy leads and I don't want to be limited to the instruments that are within arm's reach", he explains. To that end, Steve has surrounded himself with time-tested equipment. "When I started, I had to take out loans to buy my first synthesizers. That was the only way I could get the sounds and quality I wanted to work with", he remembers. "I have been lucky enough to continue with that throughout my career". In fact, there are certain pieces of gear that Steve continues to use today despite their age. "My Oberheim Xpander is like a Fender Stratocaster to a guitar player; I use it on pretty much everything I do. When I moved to L.A. in the early '80s I met some of the guys at Oberheim and they let me demo an early prototype of the Xpander, and I knew it was something special then. It is 40 years old now, but it was so advanced when it came out that it can still do amazing things today. I thought I had lost it recently when it completely stopped working after a show, but luckily, I was able to get it repaired", he explains. "The Nord lead is another one that I can't do without, it is one of my 'desert island' synths. Sometimes when I have a guest in the studio, I will play a track on the original vintage synth and then, without them knowing, I'll switch it to the Nord, and they can't tell the difference. It recreated analog so well".
Steve also demos a lot of new gear. "I have a staging area in the studio where I try them out. Usually, I work with them for a few weeks to see if they will be a good fit or not", he says. One piece of mobile gear he has added recently is the Blackbox, by 1010music. "For my live shows, I was using Ableton Live and a MacBook Pro for certain parts, but when I tried the Blackbox I just fell in love with it. Now I use four of them", he says excitedly. For Steve, it is the hands-on approach that is so important to the way he works. "I have used romplers in the past that didn't have any knobs and I was able to coax some usable sounds out of them, but it wasn't an ideal situation. I'm so happy to see synth design is changing and we are going back to control knobs and a hands-on interface", he says. "I like to see so many new artists these days. I'm excited to hear the music they are coming up with too. It is about using the tools you have access to. Inexpensive gear allows more people to be creative and that makes the world a better place".
Steve has never been afraid to try new ways to achieve his creative vision. After traveling to Australia, he learned to play the didgeridoo and began incorporating that into his music. He is one of the founders of the tribal-ambient sound, bringing in musical elements from around the world. He has also released several albums that were composed using the guitar. "For Streams and Currents, I wanted to take a break from synthesizers, so I decided to use an electric guitar that someone had left in my studio. At the time, I didn't know anything about playing guitar, or even how to tune it. I just tuned the strings to an open chord that sounded interesting and started recording loops and running things through effects pedals", he explains. The results are spectacular. "I tend to go back and forth from synth to guitar. I'm building a live-looping rig right now to work on some new guitar music".
For Steve, music is more than a job it is the search for enlightenment, a way to reach that "flow state" where the mind expands and reaches deep within the soul. When he performs live, he feels a sense of responsibility to take the audience on that journey with him. He is the guide and is creating the environment. "It's like walking a tightrope sometimes when I'm performing live and improvising, but it is those moments that are most magical", he explains. "I have developed a fine-tuned sense of timing over the years, and I try to build in some time for repose in my performances". Like a DJ building up the music for the perfect drop, Steve builds in moments of tension and release into each show, allowing the audience some time for reflection. We are all there for a shared experience, the audience, and myself. Steve usually spends weeks preparing for a show. "I will sometimes put in 15 to 20 hours a day running through all of the material and training my muscle memory so I can just let things flow during the performance", he says. "Each performance is different and when I get to the venue, I tweak things to the performance space. It becomes a collaboration with the gear, the venue, the audience, and the music; a total immersion in time and space".
Beyond his live performances in physical spaces, Steve has also embraced virtual spaces. He has performed many live streams on Youtube, including his own online music festival called SoundQuest Fest. A multiple-day live stream, featuring Steve and many invited guests. This was an elaborate presentation that streamed non-stop for three days and nights in 2021. Steve's channel also features a continuous live stream of his music called the Immersion Zone, which has streamed non-stop since April 2022. His channel also has albums, clips, and videos of live shows. With so much material available, there is a little something for everyone to enjoy.
Steve is a true master of his craft, an inspiration for us to follow our vision. Steve would say, "Defy technology and use whatever tools you need to realize your creative vision". He lives by this rule, and it is evident in the gear he uses in the studio. Each piece has a particular purpose, even if it is 20, 30, or 40 years old. It is mesmerizing to watch, as he interacts with countless synths, effects, sequencers, drum machines, and mixing boards. Like a conductor orchestrating the perfect combination of tones, rhythms, and textures, he invites us to get lost in the moment.
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