Metwork: My Technology - Getting back to basics

Steve Howe of Yes has been at the forefront of music technology. So why turn his back on it now?
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The Independent Culture
I have got a reputation for using unconventional electric guitars for rock and roll. In the Seventies it was a wah-wah. Even then I saw the potential of using the whole family of guitar instruments; the steel, the mandolin and acoustic. I wanted to be colourful. I wanted to keep the guitar going forward.

In the Seventies, Yes had the freedom to explore creativity and how we did things became more important to us. We were co-producing the records, asking how we would get the guitars sounding like this or that, and inventing methods that we thought were really ground-breaking. When digital came along, we began to use the effects unit, which is a box with gaps for putting in different sound effects.

From what was a clean jazz sound there were now loads of digital delays, for instance, and panning on each side (the sound coming from the left to the right speaker). You could slot in different and new effects into the rack like sandwiches.

It was like moving up a scale. You could rely on presets, by pressing recall and not having to twiddle about trying to replay what was done the day before. It's on a program instead. And you could move between the extremes of guitar sounds quickly.

In the Eighties, anyone could make music with these new technologies. Out of the woodwork came new ways and new expectations of music. The Eighties really did change things. Up until then your basic effect was the volume.

The rack started to grow and then Midi came along: by the mid-Eighties we had a stupendous rig. I had a big customised pedal board, 24 switches, three volume pedals and a wah-wah. It was an interesting phase of messing around.

But as the Nineties came along I began to not use all of the effects. I was doing a one-man show and I started to believe in the dualism of traditional guitar sounds and digital. I never wanted to lose what sounds great about a guitar.

Instead, I wanted to bring the technology around that. You can't expect high technology to create a vintage guitar sound, so I went back to a tiny effects rack.

We are still using that same train of imaginative thought. However, we have lost the dangerous thing of believing that the next new keyboard will be better than the last. We are resigned to what we have. It's now much more about getting a real sound. I think it has come back to reality. I have always been a great lover of music that sounds like it's played by human beings.

Technology is really about creating a fantasy, an unexpected sound. Technology can add a lot of tinsel, but you can only have so much.

There must be the substance in the first place.

A new Yes album, `The Ladder' (Eagle Records), is released on 20 September