Ever wondered what a live playback engineer does? LA-based, Perth-raised, music producer-engineer and general tech-nerd Steve Wilk is one of the best in the business. In his time working in the Los Angeles studio scene, Wilk has been involved in recording projects for Stevie Wonder, Rihanna, actress-singer Kat Graham and Babyface to name a few. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with Steve to chat about his work.

It’s a job title that your average music fan will probably be oblivious to, yet the live playback engineer has become one of the most important members of a modern day pop or rock artist’s production team. Traditionalists may view the duties of live playback engineer as the devil’s work, while others see it as the unavoidable future of music. So what does a live playback engineer do? Perth-born, LA based music producer-engineer Steve Wilk knows more about the game than most. He’s one of the most sought-after live playback engineers in Los Angeles.
“Everybody does this,” states Steve as he begins to explain his role as a live playback engineer. “You have the stems sent by the producers who have created the songs. It’s like the building blocks of a song which gets performed at a show. I set it up either in Pro Tools or Ableton and we’ll start rehearsing the song, then we start editing it. Maybe we’ll change the tempo, maybe the key. We might string them together into a medley, depending what the job brief is. Then we might start building a whole show out of all the songs and it all resides in a computer. I build an entire show that the band will play to but you can also hear it outside front of house. When you hear stories about artists who lip sync, there’s a person like me who is on the side that is providing all of the information … vocals, drums, everything playing back from the computer and the band plays on top of that. Then it’s up to the artist as to whether they have any vocals in there or not, it’s their choice. We have the songs broken down into drums, bass, guitars, keys, background vocals, lead vocals, and from that we can build anything. Every time we have a different performance we are starting from scratch, building a whole new show. It will be like, OK on this song, can you pump up the background vocals or the keyboards because we need more sound.”

Wilk at work in his studio

Wilk has been working as live playback engineer for LA actress, singer and songwriter Kat Graham (All Eyez On Me, The Vampire Diaries) for several years and has more recently begun working with Michael Nomad Ripoll, the musical director for Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds. He’s also been involved in production and recording jobs for Rihanna and Stevie Wonder. However Wilk didn’t merely arrive in LA and automatically find himself working with such high calibre artists, the road to success has been the result of years of hard work, endless enthusiasm, a hunger for knowledge and obviously a great deal of talent.

Steve Wilk’s journey in the music business began as a drummer in cover bands which led to a series of gigs throughout Asia working for hotel chains and casinos. It was while working in Asia that Steve also got his first taste of recording and was consequently bitten by the studio bug. Intent on improving his skills set, Wilk headed to LA and took up courses in both drumming and audio at the Musicians institute. As it turns out, that was one of the best decisions he’s ever made.
“When I came out of that, I got recommended for a lot of studio work,” Steve tells me. “I started working for some of the bigger studios there, one was Glenwood Place. There would be nights where Usher would be in one room with Pharrell and Will I Am would be in another room, Aerosmith in another. Then I started work with another engineer/producer who put me onto this live playback work. I worked with Rhianna in 2012 and I also did some work with Jay Sean for his performance on the Jay Leno Show. That was for his single and then I did a promo tour for Keyshia Cole with the live playback work.”

Wilk’s tools of trade

While quickly making a name for himself around the LA recording scene, Wilk landed a job in a studio where one of their notable clients included Hal Leonard Publishing. It was there that some of LA’s finest session musicians, who had worked with major recording artists and on blockbuster films, would come in to lay down tracks for significant projects. Wilk’s thirst for knowledge and a love for technology then steered him toward building recording studios, first the dlab audio facility in Burbank for himself and then builds for others, such as high profile YouTube gaming channel VanossGaming and Umbrella Nashville Studio.

However, it’s been Steve’s live playback work, particularly with Kat Graham which seems to be redefining the parameters of what a live playback engineer actually does. “There aren’t too many of us doing this and we are usually kind of hidden away,” says Steve. “But with Kat, the MD wants to explore this more and more because the tech is becoming so cool that we are looking at improvising with the computer on stage. The computer will almost become an instrument in the band, not just a playback machine but I’m going to be on there controlling it and during a live performance, we’re going to be able to slow tracks down, speed them up, put effects on them and do it all on the spur of the moment, according to what is happening with the show.”

Wilk was able to showcase some of those endless possibilities at Pandora’s Sound of Summer recently at the LA Coliseum, an event which Kat Graham hosted.
“For that Pandora performance, Kat had a song that she hadn’t recorded yet, so I recorded the background vocalists performing and we sequenced the song, created the whole song in rehearsal. That night Kat went to record somewhere else. They sent me the files the next morning, I edited the files and put the whole song together and we performed it that day at the Pandora show. So that was the first time the song was recorded and performed. We also did Kat’s All Eyez On Me after-party, which happened to be at the same time as the BET Awards, so we had all these people come down,” says Wilk. “Quincy Jones was sitting there, Verdine White from Earth Wind and Fire got up and did September with us, so all this cool, crazy stuff has been happening with Kat.”

Wilk’s gear for Kat Graham’s Pandora show

Although Wilk runs his own studio in Burbank, he has little time personally to be involved in traditional recording projects anymore and his life is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
“I spend most of my time between studio builds and teching for people now,” he says. “Producers and artists will call me and ask to help them with their studio or I’ll be showing people how to run their studio better. The other thing that is about to happen is that my friends and I are signing to a new label. The label is part of a licensing company called MegaTrax, whose main gig is licensing music for film or TV or trailers. They have some of the biggest movie houses, big marketing firms as clients. They are creating a division where they will have their best people creating music as artists … who can perform and do live shows, have social media and music on Spotify etc but they are releasing EPs through A List records. A List records will be out there getting the music synced in the film and TV world more then trying to get it on the radio. The way we make music for that is all remote. We hook up via a folder on Google Drive and I will work directly in Google Drive and it syncs, as I am working, to my friends’ computers, so no need to send files.”

Steve Wilk has come a long way from playing with cover bands in Perth to being a much sought after studio figure in LA. His network of associates has quickly developed as word has got around of his knowledge and ability. He has also gained recognition with some of the world’s coolest gear companies, earning himself endorsements with; Radial Engineering, Ultimate Ears, Audionamix Plugins, UVI plugins, Plugin Alliance, and Ableton. Wilk’s enthusiasm for his work and technology in general is infectious. While some musicians will be forever confined by their traditional beliefs, Wilk is one who is excited for the future of music.
“We performed at SXSW this year and I was super excited to see non-traditional bands performing,” an animated Wilk tells me. “There was a band with a singer, drummer, guitarist and a computer on stage and it sounded brilliant. The songs had cool effects going on. That whole concept of the traditional band is changing. There was a time where you had to have a drummer, bass player, guitarist, keyboard player and the computer was hidden. Today the computer is much more a part of the sound. More and more you’re going to see a combination of lighting and video, which will become much more extravagant as well.”

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