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Ruby Topaz’s Mark Bram Talks Influences, Guitars, and Recording Techniques

A chat with Ruby Topaz’s Mark Bram about his influences, how he got started in music, his writing process, and his gear.



Ruby Topaz

When asked to describe Ruby Topaz’s sound, lead vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Mark Bram says, “We have the glam and theatrics of Cooper and Bowie, the sophisticated rock of Queen, the power and urgency of early Zeppelin with the melodic prowess of early Beatles.”

And boy, howdy, do they. The band’s latest album, Rabbit Hole, released at the end of 2022, showcases heady retro-laced, guitar-driven, sonic creations harkening back to early Rush, James Gang, and Tommy Bolin.

Recording in his bespoke studio, jam-packed with vintage gear, Bram’s technical knowledge goes way beyond ‘knowing what you need to know’ and enters the realm of the supernatural.

V13 spoke with Mark Bram about his influences, how he got started in music, his writing process, and his gear. Find out more about the band at their official website.

What inspired your latest album, Rabbit Hole?

Mark Bram: “I guess the drive to create music. I look at what I do as ‘painting pictures with sound.’ I’ve been saying that for as long as I can remember. My vintage recording gear (all the tubes, transformer, and circuits, in my microphones, preamps, and compressors) that add warmth and a sense of ‘bigness,’ my guitar rig, my plugins; these are the paints on my palette. The mixing and production are the brush that puts it all together. I had new songs and songs that were written a long time ago; that were either recorded, but never released, or never recorded. I needed to get them out there so that they would ‘exist.’”

Walk us through your mindset as you entered the studio to record the album.

“That’s a tough one… It varies. Usually, when I write a song, it’s fully formed in my head… arrangements, production, echoes, reverb, etc. If not, the ideas for production happen when I’m lying in bed, sitting around, or driving in the car. So… when I go into the studio, I’m chasing a sound that is already in my head, or I have already mapped out what I’m going to do… which console plugin to use, what room to put the drums in (virtually), what effects I’ll use and what I’m going to play.

“Of course, things change and evolve during the process. I might decide that something isn’t working and try something else. One idea might lead to another. I might try something that I hadn’t initially thought of, like it, and go in a different direction.”

Who is in Ruby Topaz, and which instrument do they play?

“Well… there’s studio Ruby Topaz, and there is live Ruby Topaz. Through the years, in all the incarnations of the band, Ruby Topaz, I have played guitar and keyboards, did the vocals, written the music, and produced the recordings. It’s always been my band.

“Except for a very short stint in high school, with a rhythm guitar, it has always been a three-piece band. Guitar, bass, and drums. There have been different members (three drummers and many bass players).

“In the studio, I play everything except the drums (although there are always a few cuts where I do play everything, including drums). Live, I play guitar, guitar synth, keyboards, and lead vocals.

Steve D’Andrea plays drums and percussion in both the studio and in the live band. Steve and I have been playing on and off since I was twelve years old. He’s like my brother. We are synced when we play together. We grew up together, a street apart from each other, and listened to the same music.

“When we play live, Steve does backing vocals. If there is a high harmony, Steve will take over the lead vocal I did in the studio, and I’ll shoot up and do the high harmony, then I’ll go back down and retake the lead.

Ruby Topaz’s Mark Bram with guitars

Ruby Topaz’s Mark Bram with guitars

“Stephen Fassbender plays bass, keyboards, and backing vocals in the live band (he also does the modifications on my guitars at Noll Guitars). He is an awesome bass player and a genuinely nice person. You can throw anything at him, and he’s right there. His influences are so linked to mine. Although there are many years between us, he grew up listening to and liking the same music that I did.

“On the album, he is listed in Live Band One. There is a reason for that. He is the de facto bass player in the band Ruby Topaz. The reason for the distinction is this:

“For twelve years or so, Chris Hallam was the live bass player. Chris was also the bass player for Ruby Topaz for a few years when I was in high school. We had a falling out, let’s call it a miscommunication/misunderstanding, and leave it at that; in 2017, and we parted ways. Stephen (who my wife refers to as ‘Steve, not Steve’ because both members are named Steve) joined the next day.

“During the pandemic, we couldn’t rehearse. Chris and I reconnected by phone and talked a lot. We have known each other for many years, and there has always been a bond.

“When we started rehearsing again, because of scheduling conflicts, Stephen couldn’t make it for a while, and Chris would come to rehearsal to jam and play our songs. When Stephen resolved the conflicts and we started playing together again, we would rehearse with Stephen on Mondays and jam with Chris on Wednesdays. As a nod to our friendship, I put Chris behind a tree on the cover of the Rabbit Hole CD and on the inside in Live Band Two.”

How did you get started in music?

“I have answered this question before, so it’s fresh in my mind. The Beatles. I can’t be any more direct. They changed my life. They are part of my DNA, especially Paul McCartney. I love them all, but Paul was my template.

“Being that I was so into The Beatles and other British invasion bands, my father brought me to my first concert in 1967, when I was nine years old. It was Herman’s Hermits. The opening act came on. Really cool clothes, loud music and, at the end, they destroyed their equipment… coloured smoke everywhere. It was The Who. The tour with ‘My Generation’ and other songs from that era.

“Years later, Ruby Topaz opened for John Entwistle, from The Who, during his solo tour, which was very cool. I am a huge Who fan. I saw them again in 1975 and three or four times after that. Quadrophenia was the soundtrack of my teens. Pete Townshend is a huge influence on my songwriting. I would so love to meet him.

“I could fill a book with the music that has influenced me… Golden Earring, Frank Zappa, Edgar Winter, Johnny Winter, King Crimson, Yes, ELO, The Grass Roots, The 5th Dimension, The Monkees, The Mamas & the Papas… on and on and on.

“The pop of the ’60s and ’70s, Rock of the time, glitter/glam rock, fusion, art rock, and progressive rock… all influenced me. Even movie soundtracks (I had all the John Barry soundtracks from the Sean Connery James Bond movies… they heavily influence my orchestrations).”

Ruby Topaz in the studio

Ruby Topaz in the studio

Did your sound evolve naturally, or did you deliberately push it in a certain direction?


Let’s talk gear for a moment. Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?

“Picking a guitar is impossible. I own between 110 and 120 guitars and basses. I gravitate towards Gretsch-style guitars with TV Jones TV Classic filtertron type pickups, Epiphone Casinos (which I used for the song, ‘Rabbit Hole,’ along with an SG and Ibanez electric 12-string), Les Pauls (both humbucker and P-90 pickups), SGs (both humbucker and P-90 pickups), Telecaster, and Strat style guitars (Fender, Yamaha, Ibanez, and Xaviere).

“All my guitars are modified (I’ll change pickups, add knobs, change or shave down the necks), and they all have Graphtech Ghost loaded bridges with a MIDI Hexpander, so I can connect to my guitar synths.

“The centerpiece of my system is the Line 6 Helix. It is the most important piece of gear that I own. It is full of the most realistic models, in both sound and feel, of amplifiers, Stompboxes, and effects. I’ve owned a lot of the real amps that are modeled here, and believe me when I tell you, they are accurate.

“I’m a big Line 6 fan and used a massive Vetta stack (300-watt head and four speaker cabinets) for many years. Helix is the successor to Vetta.

“My signal path is this: I go out of the L6 link (digital output) of Helix to the L6 link input of an L2t-powered PA speaker on the left. L6 link output to the L6 Link input of the L2t on the right.

“I go out of the left and right XLR outputs on Helix into two Line 6 2×12 Powercab plus amps (stacked on top of one another and wired like a stereo 4×12 cabinet).

“I have four guitar synths on my board with Helix… two GR-55s, a Gr-33, and an SY 1000. I have GT1000 core (I also have an HX Stomp an HX Stomp XL, and a POD GO, that used to be on my board, but I downsized a bit… if you can call it that). All of that gets routed to the L2ts.

“I have a Dr. Robert’s pedal (Vox UL730 front end… the amps used on ‘Revolver’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’ I used it on ‘Rabbit Hole’), a Tone Bender, and a Vocoder in the FX loops of the Helix. I used to have a Greg Fryer treble booster on there, too (I have three different models, including one that Greg built just for me, to use with my modeling amps), but when Helix added a Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster (I did a YouTube video demonstrating Brian May sounds with it), I figured that I would free up space on my board and take them off. They are AWESOME pedals. I just bought a Danelectro Breakdown (Univox Uni-Drive clone) that I’ll be adding to the board… somewhere.”

Ruby Topaz ‘Rabbit Hole’ album artwork

Ruby Topaz ‘Rabbit Hole’ album artwork

Are there any special recording techniques you use in the studio?

“I have a ton of vintage and vintage clone gear… tube microphones, tube and Class A mic preamps, compressors, channel strips, etc. I go through this when I record, then it goes to the computer, where it gets put, ‘virtually,’ into a famous studio, like Sunset Sound, using the iso booths, the live rooms, and echo chambers (echo chambers added during mixdown), then it goes into a console emulation (usually API, Neve, Helios or MCI) then to a multitrack tape plugin, usually a JH24, and then I render it… just as though I had recorded all that stuff through the real gear and committed it to tape.

“Then I take those rendered, or ‘recorded,’ tracks and mix it through a different console plugin, usually an SSL, and add reverbs, tape delay, echo chambers, eq, compression, limiting, etc., and mix it down to an Ampex 2-track tape plugin. That, believe it or not, is an oversimplification. There’s a lot more that goes on. But this illustrates that I am ‘virtually’ (and actually, with analog gear front end) recording the way it has always been done for years.”

What is your definition of tone? And has your tone changed over time?

“Fat, defined, sheen… almost like you can feel the heat from the tubes and transformers. I love The Beatles, Queen, Led Zeppelin… and so much more. The pop-rock of the ’60s and ’70s was recorded by great musicians (The Wrecking Crew played on everything from that era… records, movies, and TV) and the studios and equipment that they used are legendary. These tones are etched into my brain… and that is what I’m chasing.”

What inspires your writing? Do you draw inspiration from poems, music, or other media?

“I’d say that 98 percent of my songs are deeply autobiographical, and, of course, music that I’ve absorbed through the years has become part of my DNA, so that influences me.”

What can your fans look forward to over the next six months? Music videos? Live gigs?

“I’m going to be releasing a 22nd anniversary remaster of Mark Bram Ruby Topaz Again. It’s being mastered by Christian Wright at Abbey Road Studios. He has his work cut out for him. It was recorded before I got all my vintage recording gear. I did the bulk of it on a Yamaha AW4416 16-track digital (an all-in-one mixer and recorder) and a few on a Roland VS880 8-track digital all-in-one. Not really state of the art, but it came out good… and the songs, which are a big part of our live set, and performances were really good.

“Yes, we will be making some videos, and we hope to get out gigging really soon.”