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Interview with Steven Down (Joss Stone)

When a terrible backline incident in Bhutan turns out to be a life altering experience

Steve Down with Joss Stone
Steve Down with Joss Stone
Steve Down with Joss Stone
Steve Down
Steve Down
Rift Amp

Steve Down is not only part of Joss Stone's live band since 2012, but also plays with Sandi Thom. He is one of the UKs most demanded session guitarists and worked with and alongside artists such as Jeff Beck, Gabrielle, Beverley Knight, Nitin Sawhney, Joselyn Brown, Neneh Cherry, Incognito, Mica Paris, Real World Studios and on the BBC and Channel 4. He also runs a Jazz trio called The Swiss.

Down graduated from Southampton University with a First Class Honors degree in Music and studied with industry professionals such as Mike Outram (Royal Academy of Music), Dave Marchant (Courtney Pine/Berklee) and John Barwood (LCM). His style and technique allow him to cover multiple genres including R ‘n’ B, funk, rock, blues, soul, pop as well as contemporary jazz. In addition, Down is a professional tutor and teaches at many music schools across England's South West and online as well as for the Academy of Music and Sound.

Where are you located?

I live in Exeter, about three hours away from London. I prefer to stay in a less busy place. I have a studio in my house where I do most of my remote sessions as well as teach guitar lessons. However, whenever a more advanced setup is needed I can take a 30 minutes trip to Joss's engineer Christian Sennett who is a friend.

How did you end up in Joss Stone's band?

Joss's parents were based close by to Exeter. Her mother Wendy set up a music bar, Mama Stones, to provide live music almost every day. They would invite bigger acts but also had a house band which I joined. Joss was of course in and out that place, so we got to know each other. One day she needed a guitarist to do some bits and pieces for a TV promotion for her Soul Sessions 2 album in 2012. After that I was asked to do a bigger show in Paris. And after that they invited me to join her Total World Tour. It has been going on since 2014. I believe there are 34 countries left which we will hopefully cover by the end of 2019 ¬ before we go back to normal touring schedules! The Kemper has definitely helped with going to all these places where you had no idea about what the backline would be like. I also played on Water For Your Soul where I used a mixture of the Kemper and my Princeton amp.

When did you come across The Kemper Profiler?

I have had it on my radar for a few years. Christian was banging on me to go for it for ages so I gave in to him and bought a unit in 2016. It was after a tour where the backline was utterly terrible. We played a beautiful tiny country called Bhutan. They just couldn't get a backline together. So I ended up with a beaten up Marshall MG50 – more of an amp you would see in a secondary school's practice room. That's when I decided to get a Kemper. Since then it has been a lifesaver for so many times. You can just plug it into the house system and it will give you perfect results every single time. And obviously it has become so useful for studio stuff, too. I have had innumerous sessions here and in other studios where it has become invaluable. it saves so much time. Normally I played through a Fender Twin Reverb. And if that's not the sound they wanted, I was stuffed because that's all I have.

So, the Fender Twin has been your amp for many years?

Yeah, I really like the red knob version with the 2x12" speaker setup. I have always been into fenderish stuff and also used Princetons. I really like that kind of 60's sound. And then eventually, there was this amp company Rift Amps (www.riftamps.com) which made me a custom amp. It has this mid sixties look and two channels. Two cleans, no dirt: one being a Twin Reverb, the other being a Blackface. I worked with that amp for a while but obviously couldn't take it on tour with me. So I profiled this amp. And since then, to be honest, I have literally just used the Profiler.

Do you still use the Rift and Fender amps in the studio now?

Sometimes but not really. There were even a couple of times where I fooled the producer. One time I was booked to play with an Al Green kind of sound. I had a Höfner guitar and used a Fender Champ kind of sound. I typically use the Tweed Pack by M.Britt profiles (www.mbritt.com) for this. So I told the producer, Christian Lohr, that I would do it with the Profiler. He said the result sounded real digital. He's such an analog guy and I knew he would be dead against it once he knew I was going down the digital path. So I said "Fine, I'll use a Princeton". However, I tweaked a couple of parameters such as the Tube Bias, clarity and definition and sent the file back. He found it perfect and we laughed when I told him. In short: Most people are really happy with the sound of the Profiler, just like another producer I worked with, Lack of Afro, who is really into vintage analog sound.

Sometimes your eyes seem to fool you
Yeah. If you know what you are hearing, you are more likely to say "No" if, for whatever reason, you do not like digital sound. But if you do the blindfold test, you can easily be fooled. There are lots of examples online proving this.
What's your choice of Profiles?
For my work with Joss, I use my custom amp profiles and the M-Britt selection. I also enjoy the Fender Twin profile that comes with the Profiler. Then there is a Cornford Carrera profile which I use for Jazz sessions. It is from the Kemper community. If I need a dirty channel I will use my Fulltone Fulldrive which was the result of some testing. For the heavier stuff in Joss's band I use a Bogner Ecstasy profile.
So your sound selection is not that big!
It's not. A lot of Joss's songs need a vintage clean tone which slightly breaks up. That's her sound. And I mainly play a Gibson ES-335. But there are a few songs that need quite a lot of heavy effects, added to my basic sound. I have used the Crystal Delay a couple of times, for example in “Jetlag” to create a really wide sound for the guitar. The stereo delays and modulation effects in the Profiler are brilliant. It really brings the sound you would create in a studio out on to the road. Putting that in my sound has massively impressed me. There are three or four songs in the set where I need that. Also, the Wide Stereo EQ has been really useful for me.
Do you use any other external effects besides that Fulldrive?
Not at all. I went straight for the Profiler Remote and it works really well. In addition, I use a Dunlop expression pedal which is hooked up to the remote and it handles all the volume and wah effects.
What is the exact stage routing?
The Profiler serves FOH in stereo. For monitoring I use in-ears. However, Joss also like a little bit of guitar sound from the monitors. And I agree that a little bit of rumble on stage is quite nice. When there is a chance to use a flat EQ speaker or a cabinet of my choice, I'll use that, since I own the powered version of the Profiler. All options covered, just in case. But you never really never know what you get. If I don't get that or the amps being provided are combos with no access to the speakers, I'll do something weird: I plug the monitor output of the Profiler into the input of an amp as a workaround. First I thought it would sound terrible, but actually it sounded really nice even without turning off the cabinet section. It works fine for me, but might not work for everyone.
Do you tweak your profiles in order to match the guitars you use?
Yes, my two main guitars are a Nash Telecaster and a Gibson ES-335 which is a lot hotter. So when I switch guitars, I'll also change the profile. This is really useful because I don't have to go the unit to adjust it. However, the changes are mostly gain-related to level out what goes to the FOH. I also tweak the clarity and definition and obviously the EQ. In addition, it seems to make tour manager's lives a lot easier when organizing backline. The Profiler is so small, it goes into hand luggage, so I'll arrive with all my sounds. For me, the guarantee to get the same tone each time is great. And I usually also go through all the profiles with the FOH technician before a tour so that he can have specific presets ready that match these sounds. It also makes his life easier. So, the Profiler really bridges the gap between the musician and the technician. Actually, I think it enabled guitarists and engineers to be friends again!
Is there typical signal flow in your profiles?
I do use a little bit of Noise Gate. For a few songs I have a compressor going to level my sound to not pop out the mix too much. In other situations I would take that out to achieve a more vintage sound. I also use the tremolo and rotary sounds in the Profiler, a little chorus as well as the delays and the Stereo Wide EQ. Those options are usually all available in my programs as options on the remote in case I need them. If I need a slight boost, I would turn on my Fulldrive pedal. Sometimes I also use the Boost within the Profiler. But in other cases, such as "I put a spell on you" where the guitar is quite prominent with a humongous sound, I'll switch to a different profile with more gain and a bigger sound.
How does the Profiler translate your style of playing, dynamics etc …?
It does a brilliant job. It just responds to all of the dynamics that comes from my fingers or when rolling the volume knob – just like a normal amplifier and just as I would expect it. I haven't struggled with it at all. Even when I first got the Profiler, it didn't take me very long to get used to it. At first, I used the profiles that were on the unit, before I made my own ones. No one has noticed a loss of quality. Actually, a lot of people actually prefer my new setup and I myself even find the clarity to be better in many cases. This is especially true when I put my acoustic guitar through the Profiler. I have specific profiles to cover that, which treat the signal almost like a DI, but add stereo effects to it.
Is there anything you miss from the Profiler?
I have had no issues with the Profiler at all except for one thing. A few times, the Remote wouldn't switch on. We sourced that to be a power issue in certain environments with fluctuating power supplies. But I have two wishes. I would appreciate to have a little bit of additional gain at hand when using the Profiler with acoustic guitars, where I turn the amp- and cabinet-simulation off. It could also be a specific acoustic setting. Another thing that might be great, would be the possibility to download settings for the different effects. Being able to get a bigger choice of stomps would of course also be nice …