A Virtuoso Bassist and his MICRO BR
By Corey Fournier
Sideman, solo artist, and bass educator Norm Stockton is widely recognized as one of the world’s premier bassists. Since 2006, he has been the touring and recording bassist for chart-topping worship artist Lincoln Brewster, and he’s worked with many other prominent artists as well, including Vicky Beeching, Rob Mullins, David Pack, Brian Doerksen, and more. As an educator, he is perhaps best known for his popular instructional DVD series Grooving for Heaven, distributed by Alfred Publishing.
In 2001, Norm released his debut CD, Pondering the Sushi. Recorded almost entirely with a Roland VS-1680 V-Studio, this album received great critical acclaim among not only bass aficionados, but also the jazz community as a whole. For Tea in the Typhoon, his long-awaited 2010 follow-up CD which features musical guests Gregg Bissonette, John Patitucci, and others, Norm again enlisted the help of Roland and BOSS recording gear. This time around, the ultra-compact MICRO BR multitracker was called into service, and it became an essential part of Norm’s creative process as an audio sketchpad and organizer of musical ideas.
Recently, All Access caught up with Norm for a discussion about his career, recording projects, and his favorite BOSS and Roland gear.
How did you get started playing bass?
My older brother was a child prodigy classical guitarist; after switching to electric guitar as a teenager, he would occasionally encourage me to take up the bass. I didn’t have any interest in playing music at the time, but it occurred to me years later that I was intrinsically gravitating to the bass lines as I listened to records back in those days. So perhaps my brother had more insight than I’ve ever given him credit for.
Anyway, when I was about 15 years old, I became a fanatical Beatles fan. I was into them at a time when most of my friends weren’t. I remember being so inspired by Paul McCartney’s bass lines that I removed a couple strings from an old nylon-string guitar that was lying around the house and started learning them. Within a few weeks, I went and bought my first bass.
At what point did you know that bass playing and music would be your career path? Was there an “aha” moment?
Probably like every teenager who takes up an instrument, I had my rock star aspirations! But economic realities being what they are, the practical side of me won out and I never really pursued playing music as a vocation. It wasn’t till later in my twenties that things had evolved to the point where I basically had two full-time jobs—my day gig and playing bass. The amazing thing was that my office job allowed me almost complete autonomy schedule-wise. So I was able to maintain that for a number of years, simply juggling those duties around a fairly busy road schedule.
So, it was more of a gradual process for me, but the point eventually came where I sensed it was time to take the big step out of the day gig…and paid health coverage and predictable income. It’s been an absolute blast, though. I feel extremely blessed to be able to do what I do, particularly with so much encouragement and support from my wife and daughters.
What made you start making your own recordings as a bass artist and moving beyond being a backline player/performer?
The interesting thing for me is that I sort of backed into it. In the late ’90s, I was doing a lot of workshops for church bands around North America with a company called Maranatha! Music. I started noticing that there was a big need for an instructional resource that would help fill in the gaps in knowledge for so many of the self-taught bassists I was meeting. The Grooving for Heaven instructional DVD series (videotapes at that time) was produced in response to that need. Much to my surprise, those videos were really well received by both the church and mainstream music worlds. It’s now a four-volume series with over seven hours of material, and is distributed by Alfred Publishing.
The Grooving series resulted in my becoming known as an educator, which has certainly been a blessing, although it wasn’t anything I ever intentionally pursued. The cool benefit, though, was a fan base of people who were potentially interested in my music even outside of the instructional context!
In your teaching, you talk about tone. Are there any particular BOSS pedals that have played a role in tones you've created as a player?
Being half-Japanese and having spent most of my childhood in Japan (including my first three years playing bass), I was very familiar with—and a big fan of—both BOSS and Roland from the very beginning. As a matter of fact, my first “cool” purchase as a musician was a BF-2 Flanger pedal at Yamaguchi Music Store in Yokosuka, Japan. Wow! I still remember how exciting and inspiring it was to hear that sound, despite the horrific bass I was playing! Over the years, I’ve owned a wide variety of BOSS pedals, including the TW-1 T-Wah, SYB-3 Bass Synthesizer, etc. Those pedals were the inspiration behind many of the tones I used on Pondering the Sushi, particularly on the title track and a piece called “Blessed.”
How did you go about making your first bass record and what inspired you?
I had written a number of songs and song fragments over a period of years, and at least a handful of them actually sounded rather good in my head! I started wondering if they might resonate with others, too. I eventually decided to go for it and released my first CD as a leader (Pondering the Sushi, Stocktones Music) in 2001.
I suppose it is a “bass record” from the standpoint that it was created by a bassist, but the vast majority of the tunes are band tunes with a variety of instruments covering the melodies, such as piano, trumpet, seven-string bass, etc. I personally tend to get bored with projects where most of the melodies and solos are played on bass; I love sonic variety!
Anyway, I was blown away and remain humbled by the fantastic response it continues to receive from around the world. For me, the best compliment I can possibly receive as an artist is when the spouse of the bassist who bought the CD contacts me to let me know that they really enjoy the songs; to me, that is a real indicator that, at least on some level, I successfully made music.
What was your process in recording those tracks?
It was almost entirely recorded using a Roland VS-1680, in hotel rooms and green rooms around North America when I was traveling with Maranatha! Music. I checked that unit in an SKB case and flew it with me wherever I went! Besides being great sounding, the convenience factor with the VS-1680 was off the chart. I remember tracking my solo version of “The Star Spangled Banner” in a hotel room overlooking midtown Manhattan late one night back in May 2000. That was—and remains—a really moving experience for me, particularly in light of the horrific tragedy that occurred in that city the following year.
From a technical standpoint, the bass itself sounded exceptional on that track. What was your signal path for recording that performance?
Actually, it was just my MTD 535 bass plugged directly into the VS-1680’s Hi-Z input using a Monster Cable! I think the mixdown engineer ran the track through some outboard tube gear and added a bit of reverb, but the fundamental sound was just a good bass plugged straight into the 1680.
How has the experience of making your own records affected how you approach playing with artists such as Lincoln Brewster and others?
I’ve found that doing my own projects has been incredibly beneficial for my overall musicianship, as it involves writing, arranging, producing…and even playing! It forces you out of a bass-centric mentality to one of listening to the music from a higher level: How is my bass line working in the context of the overall ensemble? How are all of these parts working together? Are they functioning to serve the song, or are any elements actually distracting from the piece? Those sorts of questions are great to ask yourself on a regular basis.
That [process] has informed my approach to working with Lincoln and other artists, whether in the studio or live. I’m much less concerned with playing something impressive and much more interested in making sure I’m effectively serving the tune. If that involves something a bit more involved or busy, fine. But if it calls for something very fundamental, simple, and foundational, I want to approach that part with just as much commitment and attention to feel, phrasing, and emotive execution.
Did your process change for the recording of your most recent project, Tea in the Typhoon?
The process was similar in that the final writing and preproduction stage involved compiling little snippets I’d written over the course of years, some dating back to shortly after the release of Pondering. I spent a fair amount of time listening through and cataloging to identify those that stood the test of time! From there, I began experimenting with which pieces seemed to work well together to create cohesive musical statements.
A hugely helpful addition to this process was my BOSS MICRO BR digital recorder. I used it for a wide variety of things, but the three primary ones were as follows:
1. As a handheld recorder, I could always have it handy when I needed to quickly capture a melody or groove idea. The built-in stereo mic sounds fantastic.
2. As a convenient and super-portable, great-sounding way to organize and compile all of the various snippets I mentioned, so I could easily navigate through and do preproduction work whenever I had a spare moment.
3. As a multitrack musical sketchpad, so I could quickly throw down bass lines, chords, and melodies to hear how they worked together before preparing charts for the tracking sessions.
The MICRO BR was invaluable, and a big timesaver for me. I could quickly establish whether an idea was working or not, and I didn’t need to break out my laptop, interface, etc. in order to do it.
The Typhoon sessions involved some of my favorite musicians on the planet, including John Patitucci, Michael Manring, Gregg Bissonette, Lincoln Brewster, and a handful of other incredible players. It was absolutely crucial that I walked into those tracking sessions being as prepared as possible, and the MICRO BR was a big part of accomplishing that.
Have you found the MICRO BR useful even after completing the Typhoon project?
Absolutely! In addition to all of the above, it’s also killer as a practice tool—the instrument input, built-in drum machine, and multi-effects, as well as the super-compact size, all make for a convenient, fun, and inspiring woodshed time on a moment’s notice.
It’s funny, because I actually went into the music store looking to buy a different unit that I’d read about, but after I described what I needed, the salesperson told me that the MICRO BR was the only piece of gear that would do everything I wanted! I bought it on the spot, and have loved it ever since.To learn more about Norm and get info on his instructional DVDs and solo projects, visit www.NormStockton.com.