Rock Legend Steve Miller Brings in an ICON for New Albums

Guitarist/vocalist Steve Miller has carved a place in history as one of the most successful blues rock artists of all time. Now he’s putting the finishing touches on a couple new albums, featuring all blues covers, with help from a 32-channel ICON D-Control ES console he recently had installed in his studio.

Miller has engineer Kent Hertz (Godsmack, Terrence Howard, Gloria Estefan) to thank for introducing him to the ICON way. Hertz, who’s mixing the album alongside renowned producer/engineer Andy Johns (Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Rolling Stones), had used ICON consoles in previous projects and found the sheer speed invaluable.

 There’s nothing else that touches it… If I have to, I’ll mix on an SSL, but I’d rather mix on an ICON.
- Kent Hertz, Steve Miller engineer

“You can’t beat the functionality, you can’t beat the workflow,” Hertz emphasizes about using ICON with Pro Tools. “The speed and control you have on mixing you can’t do on anything else.”

Miller originally designed his studio around an SSL console in the early ’90s, but the technical hassles associated with an analog board led him to go digital — first with a Euphonix CS-3000 and then a Digidesign ProControl until Hertz arrived last November to start planning the mixing sessions.

“I’m the one that kind of persuaded him to get the ICON,” Hertz admits. “[I] installed it and redid his whole studio — it’s basically a big Pro Tools room now… Originally, he wanted to put a big Neve in there. I kind of ran the numbers, and there was no way it was going to happen for the budget that we had.”

Not only did ICON satisfy the affordability factor, it also proved to be much more than just second choice. Miller loves his new console, but most surprising, Hertz says, was Johns’ reaction to it. As mixing preparations began, Hertz took Johns — a longtime, old school analog advocate — to Miller’s studio to get him accustomed to the ICON.

Steve Miller“The first two days,” Hertz recalls, “he [Johns] was just not having it whatsoever, but then by the end of the fourth day, he told me he didn’t want to mix on anything else.”

“I had a very good time with it,” Johns says, who’s also mastering the albums on ICON. “It took me a little bit of time to get used to it, but I had Kent with me, and he’s a really bright chap. I was amazed at how flexible it was and what can be accomplished. It sounds fabulous — I’m very pleased.”

 Comparing the ICON to his analog console comfort zone, Johns reasons, “I think why I liked it [the ICON console] is because after a day or two, it feels like you’re at home.” But there was one thing he wasn’t prepared for when he first started going through the console’s fader banks. “The faders all jump around!” he exclaims, laughing. “That freaks me out a little bit still, but [because of the banking] it’s got as many channels as you could ever need.”

Before ICON came into the picture, Miller had planned to complete his project entirely in analog, and cut an estimated 41 cover songs at Skywalker Sound, with Johns recording all tracks onto analog tape. But after some discussion about the mixing approach, Hertz succeeded in getting Miller to go with ICON, and transferred the recordings to Pro Tools to accommodate Miller’s new setup, which also includes a 7-card Pro Tools|HD system running Pro Tools 8 software.

“Andy ideally wanted to mix it up at Skywalker on a Neve, but it didn’t make sense, especially for Steve,” Hertz explains. “Steve really likes to try everything arrangement-wise. We move very fast, and it’s something you can’t do on an analog desk. Chopping up one song and trying a bunch of different arrangements — we do that a lot. Or just adding more tracks, going from two vocals to 24 vocals just to try it. You can do it on an analog desk, [but] it just gets time-consuming. It’s another element in the workflow that you have to work around, whereas the ICON just works with Pro Tools.”

Another benefit, Johns was happy to discover, was the console’s reliability. Unlike the unpredictable performance of analog consoles, there were no issues with ICON. “Nothing ever went wrong,” Johns says. “I’m used to — if I’m on a Neve or an SSL or an API — there’s always a few bum channels and things going on and off, and I just expect downtime, and we didn't have any downtime whatsoever.”

ICON also made it easy to switch gears while mixing. “I can work on two or three songs at once instead of doing one song per day or one song every two days,” Hertz says. “I adapted Steve and Andy to that workflow where in one day we would make changes on five different songs. Andy’s used to working on analog consoles, so [being able to switch between songs quickly] seems very unnatural for him, but once he was turned on to it, he loves it!”

Steve MillerJohns agrees, noting that the console’s recall capabilities made a big impression on him. “It’s so much easier, because with any analog mixer — even an SSL — when you do recalls, they never come out perfect. But with [ICON], bang — you’re right back where you were instantly.”

Hertz and Johns stuck mostly with the basics for sound processing, using both outboard gear and plug-ins to ultimately mix 23 songs. Their go-to processors include Lexicon 480s, an Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer, AMS RMX-16, LA-2A, and API EQs on the hardware side, plus a variety of plug-ins, including Digidesign/Bomb Factory 1176, SansAmp, Fairchild 660/670, Waves RBass, and EQs from McDSP and Metric Halo.

“I like the fact that there are a lot of different sends,” Johns says. “I could have about seven or eight setups permanently there [in the studio]… I’d have a flange setup, three different kinds of reverb, various delays… they were just sitting there all the time, not taking up any room like you would [have] on an analog mixer… [The mixes] came out really well, and I’m a happy camper!”

Both Johns and Hertz are looking forward to working with Miller on several upcoming projects, including an all-new Steve Miller Band album — “to finalize ‘The Joker,’” Hertz says — and a project that Miller did with Paul McCartney. And they’ll have the ICON on hand to mix them all.

“If you’re using Pro Tools, there’s no other console that works with Pro Tools the way that the ICON does.” Hertz sums up. “There’s nothing else that touches it… If I have to, I’ll mix on an SSL, but I’d rather mix on an ICON.”