Living In The Limelight

By Andy Aledort, Guitar World, January 1999, transcribed by pwrwindows and Dave Ward

After sifting through 90 shows and 11,520 tracks, RUSH deliver their fourth, and best, live album, Different Stages.

"THERE WERE LITERALLY HUNDREDS OF ADAT TAPES, PILED A MILE HIGH." Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, his voice a mixture of glee and relief, is describing the arduous task of compiling and selecting tracks for the band's latest opus, the three CD live release Different Stages. "We ran two sets of eight ADATs a night, so that's 128 tracks. Our engineer had to go through boxes and boxes of tapes in order to determine which were the best nights, and then we all came in to narrow it down to the absolute best stuff. It was a huge undertaking."

The band's fourth live album (following 1976's All the World's a Stage, 1981's Exit...Stage Left and 1989's A Show of Hands), Different Stages features two discs of music recorded during Rush's 1994 Counterparts and 1997's Test for Echo tours, and includes, as a bonus, a third live disc culled from deep in the band's archives; this disc features the lion's share of the band's 1978 appearance at London's famed Hammersmith Odeon.

The 37-song package spans the band's entire 25-year career, and includes such classic hits as "Limelight," "Closer to the Heart," "The Spirit of Radio," "Tom Sawyer" and "Freewill," as well as more recent material such as "Roll the Bones" and "Stick It Out." Also included is the band's first-ever live offering of the ambitious "2112."

"When we started this project, we planned on using songs from lots of different shows and different cities," says bassist Geddy Lee. "Between the two tours, we recorded about 90 shows. In the end, we realized that there were a small handful of shows that just sound better than the rest, in terms of audio quality. The difference was usually due to the sound of the venue itself, which is surprising, considering how controlled our recording process was."

As a recording, Different Stages is clearly state-of-the-art-very full, very fat, very live.

"Yeah, it does sound really good!" says Lifeson. "All the clarity is there, there's really good separation between the instruments and the whole thing has a lot of punch and power. The bottom end is so sweet-it's big, round and deep. And I think the performances are there, too. I feel this record accurately represents what we sound like live."

GUITAR WORLD: Rush recorded three live albums prior to Different Stages. What made you record another one?

GEDDY LEE: Each live record functions as a sort of historical document. I think our sound changes quite a bit over every three- or four-album period, so it's interesting to hear how the band and certain songs evolve. Some fans may say, "'Closer to the Heart' again?!," but, to me, this is simply the best live version we've ever recorded. That justified "Closer to the Heart" being on this record.

So the general criteria was that either it was a song that had never appeared on a live album, and we were very happy with the performance, or it was one of our "classic" tunes that positively smoked, like the version of "YYZ" on this record.

GW: With an undertaking this massive, how does the band keep all of its material in perspective?

LEE: We didn't listen back to every show; that would've been insane. Robert Scovill, our sound engineer, undertook the first level of the process of elimination at his home studio in Arizona. The first step was to weed out all of the recordings with technical glitches, and there were a lot of technical glitches. That immediately narrowed it down to about 12 clean versions of each song, and we'd listen to all of those on a microscopic level. Of the 12, we might find that, on some, the snare would sound a little weird, or the guitar was a little out of tune, or the singer was a little out of tune! [laughs] Eventually, each song got boiled down to the best couple of versions, and from there we'd go with whichever one had the best vibe.

ALEX LIFESON: Some of the tunes that are sequenced together were actually recorded seven years apart. But I think we were successful 'in mixing the songs so that they all run together smoothly.

LEE: We wanted it to sound like one.really great show, even though, in actual fact, some of the record represents the furthest thing from that actual occurrence.

GW: Did the multitracks get bounced to a ha.d disc for digital editing and mixing?

LEE: We originally tried to keep the recording entirely in the digital domain. Our engineer, Paul Northfield, however, wasn't pleased with the results; he thought the tracks sounded too brittle. So we went back to an analog Neve [mixer] for some tube-induced warmth, and actually bounced some of the tracks to two-inch analog tape for that "saturated" analog sound. The two-inch ran in tandem with the original ADATs when we did the mixdown. This ended up giving Paul a lot of flexibility; he could run digital, analog or both.

LIFESON: It turned out to be the best of both worlds, even though it was a long, complicated process. But I feel that we ended up with the desired result.

LEE: And then, when we mixed it down, we mixed to both analog and digital. In the end, for about 80 percent of the album, we used the analog mixdown, or analog "masters." For whatever reason, the other 20 percent sounded better as digital. This created some unusual problems in the mastering process for Bob Ludwig at Gateway. He was drowning in tapes at one point, and he called me, crying, "What am I doing?!" [laughs] I had to talk him through it all.

GW: The performances on this album sound very relaxed and in-the-pocket.

LIFESON: On the last tour we chartered a plane for the first time in 25 years-we didn't bounce around in a bus for eight months. It made a really big difference in how we felt physically. It was so much easier on our bodies, so it was easier on our minds. We weren't exhausted all of the time. I felt better, had more energy and felt happier in general.

LEE: I agree with that. It made a huge difference in how we felt. And we got to play tons of golf.

LIFESON: Yeah. We played so many great courses: Arrowhead, in Denver, which is amazing; it's like you're playing golf in Jurassic Park. And Olympic and Turnberry in Scotland, and Belrieve in St. Louis, and Baltusrol...

LEE: You know, only all the best courses in the world!

Another reason for the "relaxed" sound of these recordings is the fact that we're using in-ear monitors now. I equate it with the vibe you have in the dressing room, where you're playing out of a small amp at a very low volume, and it's so easy to play. It used to be that when we hit the stage, we'd tense up for the "big rock show," and that tenseness came out in the music. With the in-ear monitors, you can create your own custom-made mix that sounds great, thus making it much easier to play; it eliminates a lot of the chaos. I think we're playing much better because the environment is much more controllable. And, of course, the in-ear monitors help tremendously with singing. It's like night and day. I can concentrate a lot more on phrasing and the quality of the performance, instead of just fighting to be in tune!

LIFESON: These in-ear monitors afford you such a great mix, which enables you to play a lot better, night after night. It shows in the fact that there are much greater dynamics in our playing now. You don't pluck the strings quite as hard, or hit the skins as hard, or play muddy, sloppy arpeggios because you can't quite hear the guitar well enough. You can be delicate when you need to be, and play with more overall precision. Then you can relax, hold back, and really lean into the heavy parts when you want to.

GW: I think the "heaviness" we hear in some of our favorite rock music is actually a function of how relaxed and in-the-groove the band is, as opposed to someone beating the crap out of his instrument.

LEE: As with all the millions of bands that have been trying to mimic Led Zeppelin over the last 20 years, they want to sound really heavy and really tough, but end up overdoing it. If you go back and listen to some of those early Zeppelin records, the guitar sounds are kind of dinky! But they're played late on the beat, and there's a particular attitude and a particular sound, and that's what makes it heavy. As we've gotten older, I think we, as a band, have gotten a better handle on laying into the groove.

LIFESON: In all seriousness, playing music is a lot like playing golf-as soon as you relax, everything just happens. It's about getting in the "zone," recognizing it and learning how to get in there without too much effort.

GW: Can you demonstrate how to perform some of your classic songs? How about "Closer to the Heart"?

LIFESON: I begin by arpeggiating this chord [Amaj9], and I use this figure for the intro section [FIGURE 1]. The secret to making this part sound right is to let each note ring as long as possible.

GW: A classic Rush tune that's never been transcribed is "The Trees," which is included on Different Stages. That sounds like a really fun song to play.

LIFESON: Oh yeah, it is. I fingerpick a nylon-string acoustic for the beginning of the tune, over which Ged plays a melodic bass figure [FIGURE 2].

LEE: This part is somewhat improvised; we never play exactly the same thing in this section of the tune. Later on, I play the barnyard animal sounds, triggered from the keyboard. After that, we get into a section in 5/4 time. The whole idea there is to get into a groove that really swings, so that it doesn't feel like an odd time signature.

GW: On the intro to "Freewill," you and Geddy play the same figure octaves apart, correct?

LIFESON: Yes, that's right. The tune begins with this melodic figure based on the F Lydian mode [F G A B C D E: see FIGURE 3A], which Ged and I play the same way as the time signature changes from bar to bar.

At the pre-chorus, I play a series of arpeggiated chords down at the first few frets of the neck [FIGURE 3B]. Like many of my guitar parts, I never play exactly the same thing twice; I like to play around with the arpeggios and create different sounds and different sequences.

GW: "Tom Sawyer" features some tricky arpeggio stuff during the pre-chorus. How do you play that part?

LIFESON: Like this [FIGURE 4A]. I keep my pinkie fretted on the B note, 3rd string/4th fret, the entire time, while the index finger walks around, fretting different notes on the low E and A strings. The fun thing about playing arpeggios like this is that you get a simulated "double-guitar" thing happening.

LEE: For my bass part, I like to reinforce the root movement of all the chords, while throwing in some additional licks here and there.

GW: Alex, the chord voicings you play during the verse section are a bit of a mystery, too.

LIFESON: Some of those voicings are a little hard to pick out. This is what I play [FIGURE 4B]. Like most of my guitar parts, this one has evolved somewhat over the years from what I did on the original studio album.

LEE: Even by the time we finish the first tour after releasing a new record, the parts have already changed.

LIFESON: And we seldom go back to the original record to relearn exactly what we played. We get into rehearsals, wade through it clumsily for the first few takes, and then it all comes back to us.

LEE: And our memories are probably just an impression of what we were playing by the end of the last tour. It's got to have the spirit of the original part, and sometimes the new part is better. A lot of times you end up tweaking and improving a part as you perform it so many times in concert, and that's one of my favorite things about the songs on this live record-they're in some ways better than they were originally.

GW: One of Rush's most powerful and well-loved tunes is "Limelight." How do you play the intro?

LIFESON: I begin with this single-note figure, after which Ged enters and we play the next bit: in unison [FIGURE 5A]. The verse section has some intricate arpeggio work in it, too [FIGURE 5B]. The first chord [Badd4] is based on a conventional 7th-position B barre chord, except I don't barre all the strings with my index finger; I only use it to fret the low B (6th string/7th fret). This allows the top two open strings to ring, which really broadens the sound of just one guitar.

LEE: Because of the trio line-up, we all feel that we need to find subtle ways to fill out the sound of the music, and that's how our playing styles developed. And that wouldn't have happened if we hadn't been a live touring act for so long. When you're onstage night after night you discover the holes and gaps so you invent chord voicings and inversions that work well between the guitar and bass parts

LIFESON: For a rock guitarist, I play a lot of 1st position stuff and use a lot of arpeggios to create a fuller guitar presence.

GW: Alex, how do you play the fast intro riff to "The Spirit of Radio"?

LIFESON: I play it down in the 2nd position, like this [FIGURE 6A]. I keep the D note, 2nd string/3rd fret, fretted the entire time with my middle finger while I play a series of pull-offs on the high E string. I fret the high A note with my pinkie and the G# with my ring finger.

LEE: After Neil [Peart, drums] and I play those syncopated licks behind Alex's repeated lick, we all move into the next bit, which is played at a different tempo [FIGURE 6B].

GW: Do you guys use some "drop D" tunings on Different Stages?

LIFESON: For "Stick It Out" both Ged and I have the low E tuned down to D. For "Driven" Ged uses "drop D" but I use standard tuning and an octave pedal to get all those low D notes

LEE: All of that stuff at the beginning of "Driven" was originally three tracks of bass. Live, Alex uses the octave box to recreate some of those bass parts.

GW: Alex, what was your live setup for these shows?

LIFESON: For recording the guitar, we used what we call "dog houses": there are two 2x12 GK cabinets in there, fitted with G12 Celestions, which are close-miked. These dog houses are closed boxes that house the amps for acoustical isolation. They're lead-lined and weigh a ton. In the beginning, we miked them with Shure SM-57s, but we switched to Audio Technica condenser mics; they gave us a little more fidelity.

So, what you hear on the record is the guitar signal as sent to the "dog houses.": My entire backline consists of a stereo setup using Marshall Anniversary series heads, which are three-channel 100-watt amplifiers. In a rack, I have Mesa/Boogie V-Twin preamps, which are great when combined with the Marshalls. This is looped with all of the effects. The third amp is a Digitech 2101 that has a few specific presets that I use, like a clean chorus setting and some phasey, overdriven stuff. Then there's a fourth amp, another 100-watt Marshall with a Mesa/Boogie V-Twin, which is totally dry-no effects. A combination of all of these things is what gets sent to the dog houses. In total, there were about eight tracks of guitar on tape.

As far as the guitars, I used a few bolt-on Artist Series Paul Reed Smiths. I picked up a new Les Paul Custom that I used on "Test for Echo," and I also have a 1976 Les Paul Standard. For strings, I use Dean Markley Blue Steels, .009-.048.

I had PRS make me a couple of guitars with transducer pickups in the bridge, resulting in a hybrid acoustic/electric, which I used for almost all of the acoustic-sounding stuff on Different Stages. These guitars are great! The only exception is "The Trees," for which I use an acoustic nylon-string Ovation mounted on a stand.

GW: The way you switch from acoustic to electric sounds is so seamless on this record.

LIFESON: It's a breeze. I also like to blend the acoustic sound with the electric sound, as I do on "Natural Science," and with these guitars it worked perfectly. I just hit toggle switches on the guitar to change from the acoustic to the electric sound. There's a separate line that runs out to an Alesis multi-effects unit with a few different presets: a shimmering 12-string setting, a clean setting, one that was a little dirtier, and some others. "Driven" is another example of the combined acoustic/electric sound.

LEE: [to Lifeson] The acoustic guitar sound on that is incredible, because a lot of people were looking around, saying "Where's the acoustic guitar?" [laughs]

LIFESON: One of the coolest things about combining the electric and acoustic sounds, like on the chorus section of "Driven," is I'm doing a fast, steady 16th-note strum with a really dirty sound, and while the acoustic guitar sound is going, "chiga-chiga-chiga-chiga," the heavy electric sound is a steady, "Errrrrrrrrrr." Together, you get the illusion of two guitars playing at once. I do a similar thing in "Resist," "Nobody's Hero" and "Natural Science."

LEE: One might assume that there are guitar overdubs, but there aren't; it's all live. But people forget that we have "happy feet," which we use to trigger keyboard parts and sequences.

LIFESON: We're very busy up there, but it's great. It's sort of a code of honor in Rush that we are able to recreate the density of the studio albums in the live setting.

GW: Geddy, what's your live setup?

LEE: I did a lot of experimenting with speaker simulators during the Test for Echo tour, which seemed to give me a better "live amp" sound than any real amp. My bass signal went direct to a Demeter DI [direct input] box-an amazing DI box-with one side going to a Palmer speaker simulator and the other side going to a Sansamp, which I use to control the distortion. Another line-out goes to a Trace Elliot bass amp on stage, which really functions only as an onstage monitor and gives me some air movement. The signal on the record, and in the house at the venue, comes from the combined DI signals, with a little of the Trace Elliot speaker cab mixed in. This gives me much more control. With the different songs that we play, I can vary the balance of the different direct signals very easily. The Palmer adds some really nice subsonics; it can go really low.

For basses on the last tour, all I used were three Fender Jazz basses, including my old '72 Jazz, which is my number one bass. I have a couple of new ones, too. The Jazz has such a solid low-end sound, which is perfect tor the frame of mind we have for the overall sound of the band. The string are Rotosounds, gauged .105-.050.

This year, Fender is going to put out a Geddy Lee Signature model Jazz bass, which they designed after my number one. Mine is a weird model; the thickness of the neck is a little unusual, as is the sound overall. It took them a while to get it right, but the guys at the custom shop were very cool about it. and they got it. It doesn't sound exactly the same-that would be impossible-but it's very respectable.

GW: Do you guys ever work on projects outside the band?

LEE: I've been writing with some different people, but it's not because I feel a great desire to express myself on a grand scale outside the context of the band. That's the beauty of Rush; there's plenty of room to do music that comes from many different directions.

LIFESON: My son is a musician and a sound engineer, and we love to play together. Also, I have a club here in Toronto called the Orbit Room, which has about 100 seats. I love to go down and play with the house band. We have live music every night, and the quality of musicianship in this place is spectacular! Most of the players are session guys, and we all go down there to play because we love doing it, and it's a great room. There's just a little dinky stage-you can barely fit four people on it! But it's so much fun to play in that kind of situation.

GW: And you can get a gig there.

LIFESON: [laughs] Yeah, but I never get paid!

GW: Geddy, you wrote a great thing in the liner notes of the new record: "To our continuing; amazement, [our fan support] has enabled us to hang around for so damn long, despite the inherent weirdness of our music!"

LEE: Let's face it, the stuff we do is not run of the mill. That's our strength, I suppose, and our fans have been supportive enough to accept what we do. I could never have imagined this happening when we recorded our first album. We're very grateful for everything that's happened for us.