EvolvEd intern Annie Wang sits down for a conversation with expert David J. Michalak, a freelance music producer based in Portland, OR who collaborates with people around the globe. He has experience in video production as well as recording, mixing, and producing music for albums, short films, and video games. Read about his inspirations, filmmaking background, and tips for music production!
AW: How did you become interested in home music production?
DJM: I’ve actually been interested in this since I was a small kid. I loved playing the piano, making my own drums, improvising soundscapes, and stuff like that. So I was recording a lot at an early age and then trying to figure out how to do my own low-budget mixing. I’d grab one boombox to play out loud what I had just recorded, play along with it on a new instrument, and record the combination on a second tape recorder. And then I’d iterate the process to build up a mix. Obviously, that approach won’t give you a professional sound, so over the past 10, 15+ years, I’ve been really trying to improve the quality of my recordings, mixes, and masters and bring it up to a professional level through education at Berklee College of Music and other hands-on experience in studios with the music I produce. So it’s been an evolving learning process over two or three decades and the content I’ve produced is out there in many places.
AW: Were you in any a cappella group or music ensembles while you were at Vassar?
DJM: Actually I wasn’t. I was thinking about taking a music class and that’s when our friend Ben [Horst] convinced me to take Chinese with him instead. At that time I was a freshman and I was deciding if I wanted to take music harmony and get into that route. I ended up doing film–which I don’t regret at all–as well as chemistry, and so my music at Vassar was mostly limited to playing with other students in bands on campus. I did unofficial things, but it was still great to play with many musically talented students there.
AW: Do you have any favorite music genres that you like to either produce or listen to?
DJM: That spans a wide net. Since the beginning, I’ve been working on music with friends and colleagues across a wide range of styles from death metal to rock to folk to soundtracks for films or videos to things that are more new age, electronic, and jazz, so I can’t say I have a favorite style to produce. I just love getting into the energy of whatever song style is there.
In terms of production, what I find an interesting mental challenge is working on a composition that goes behind a short piece of multimedia content. Whether it’s a commercial, a campaign video, or a podcast with spoken word, the overall feeling of the content is going to change quickly over time and those temporal changes are locked in by the media content that’s already there.
So what you’re trying to do as a composer, in that case, is to find the right set of chords and melody that not only work on their own musically, but more importantly also support the emotional transitions from optimistic to sad and back again, or what have you, on the timeframe of the content. I find that a really tough but fun challenge and I love it.
AW: Do you have any favorite music videos where you think they did the matching of the sound and visual particularly well?
DJM: There’s a lot of them. It’s hard to think of a favorite. “Lemonade” [by Beyoncé] was fantastic in the sense of bringing the images and the music together into a larger package. In that case, the video was almost a feature film in the sense that it had all the songs of the album but the producers and artists also spent more time creating video scenes that are longer than the original song tracks. I think that’s a really good example of two art forms coming together in an additive way. An early example, and perhaps one of the first to do it in a mainstream outlet, is Michael Jackson’s “Thriller:” the music track is about 6 minutes but the style and added story elements of the video made it nearly 15 min in length. It exploded on MTV and further boosted the success of the album. In terms of how sound and visual can be combined to heighten emotional and political impact, it’s hard to imagine a more powerful combination than Hiro Murai’s video to Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” Wow, that’s powerful.
AW: I had a conversation with my sister a while back, and I’m not sure how we ended up on the topic of music videos, but I discovered that a lot of my favorite music videos like “Havana” by Camila Cabello were directed by the same person. So even if I wasn’t aware of that fact, there was still some sort of storytelling quality of his directing style that appealed to me. I like how the music video can enhance the lyrics a lot of the times, but there are also times where the video is its own distinct narrative that’s vaguely related to the original audio.
DJM: That’s right. A lot of famous film directors got an initial start working on a variety of music videos and you can see the effect they have added on the narrative. As you mentioned, a director may have a particular style and a music manager might say to an artist, “Hey, this music director is a good match for you.”
The flip side, which you mention and which I also enjoy, is when the video may have little to do with the actual lyrical content but provides very striking visuals for entertainment. What comes to mind is some of OK Go’s music videos like “Here it Goes Again” where they have a ridiculously choreographed thing on treadmills, the impressive Rube-Goldberg machines on “This Too Shall Pass”, or the zero gravity “Upside Down & Inside Out” music video, the technical aspects required to produce these videos are incredibly impressive and they are really fun to watch. So there are a lot of different ways to augment the content of a song with video.
AW: I’ve recently gotten into this one YouTuber [Jordan Orme] who reacts to music videos from a film/director perspective, pointing out different match cuts or camera angles that are used which I think is cool because there are things that you’re consuming but might not be actively noticing, so it’s interesting to see him dissect that.
DJM: For sure. At Vassar, I was a film major so once you start studying conventional framing of shots and editing you start to say “Oh, so that’s the-rule-of-thirds for putting a person there” and when the other person in a dialog scene isn’t on the opposing third line it seems jarring. It’s really fun to see these rules broken in films and videos and analyze their emotional impact. So it’s cool that someone was breaking that down for music videos.
AW: Are there any specific artists that you draw inspiration from? I know you talked about working with a variety of genres.
DJM: Yeah, I’ll be cheesy for a moment, because it’s on the top of my mind, and because I just wrote a Father’s Day card to my dad. It’s cheesy, but it’s true because I grew up listening to him play classical music and jazz. He has such a great tone on the piano, and on a weekly or daily basis I was fortunate to be infused with the passionate music that he was playing. As a kid hearing that for decades, that was a really strong force in my life: how to be passionate through music.
That said, I love the energy that is in modern synthetic metal music: so things like Pagan’s Mind, Symphony X, Dream Theater, or Opeth are great examples of progressive rock or progressive metal music. So when the time is right to capture that sort of energy, those would be a go-to thing to listen to for some real pumping rock. If I’m looking for sort of a more…I don’t want to say melancholy, but sort of a dreamier, more jazzy, or flowing mood that’s not pounding in energy but more beautiful and flowing, then I’m going to be looking at jazz artists like Jacques Loussier whose “Gymnopedie” CD is just fantastic. The “You Must Believe in Spring” album by Bill Evans is just absolutely amazing. Marian McPartland and Tord Gustavsen are also fantastic for piano jazz. And an example of a more recent artist that brings passionate and progressive aspects together with power as well as beauty in jazz is Eldar Djangirov–he’s just amazing.
If it’s rock–and I’m also in a 90s-style hard rock band called Toxic Waste–then we’re looking back at influences such as Nine Inch Nails, Type O Negative, Soundgarden, Tool, and things like that; I might go back and listen to some of those bands just to get me in the right space before I work on some of that music. Recently, we’re also diving into a hybrid of hard rock and 8-bit Nintendo-style chip-tunes; so inspiration can come from many places such as soundtracks to some of our favorite classic video games.
I’m also in a singer-songwriter folk soul group, Quiet Zone, where I’m playing piano, bass, drums, and organ and then mixing everything together. In this case, YouTube has been an invaluable resource for hearing real people across the country playing Hammond organ in various churches and venues. YouTube, and other online sites, are great for giving a voice to people that aren’t stars; and it also gives the rest of us a window into performances that happen on a more local basis.
For soundtracks, one of favorite composers is Jerry Goldsmith, whose work can span from really beautiful scores like the “Russia House” to modern, guttural sounding soundtracks like “Alien” and “The Wind and the Lion”. That’s great music for certain styles, but you also have more modern film composers, like James Horner and David Arnold–the composer for many recent James Bond films, whose compositions have a great blend of electronic and classic symphonic sounds. I love Elliot Goldenthal; he’s done great stuff like “Demolition Man,” “Heat,” and “Alien 3” in the 90s as well as more recent stuff.
So, it really depends on what I need for inspiration. I want to first look at the style of music I’m trying to make. And, it also depends on who I’m working with and what their influences are. If a collaborator is influenced by The Carpenters, then I’m going to go listen to The Carpenters for a little while and get into that vibe.
AW: What advice do you have for people who are just starting producing music?
DJM: To a certain extent, the answer depends upon what style of music you’re trying to do. It’s a very different thing if you’re going to make grunge rock or if you’re trying to compose soundtracks. Hands down, I would say the first thing you need is a great set of studio monitors to be able to hear what you’re doing. To anyone getting started, I would say invest money in a decent set of studio monitors, and also a pair of studio headphones so that you don’t tick off your neighbors. There’s a couple of different places you can look to find information on that. Prices can range from a couple of hundred dollars up to a few thousand. But that’s probably the first place to start out: put your money to get good audio reproduction so you can hear what you’re doing.
After that, then it’ll depend a lot. If you’re doing more symphonic soundtrack music then you might be interested in looking at something like Composer Cloud from EastWest which gives you samples of symphonic instruments like strings, piano, woodwinds, brass and other orchestral elements. If you’re thinking more about wanting to do rock, then it’s a question of what your initial goals are. If your goals are, as an artist or band say, to get a demo recording to send it around to studios or live venues, whether in-person live or nowadays with COVID, electronically live, then getting a mixtape is kind of a different thing from trying to produce a studio-quality album. If you’re looking to record a demo, then finding a space where you can all practice together and set up a properly- placed recording element is probably a great start.
If you’re past all that and you’re like “Man, studios are too damn expensive, I want to figure out how to start doing this on my own,” then you’re going to be talking about how to get the sound from my guitar properly into my computer. Then you can have a discussion about which audio interface, which software, if it’s Pro Tools or Logic, is better for you, and what equipment you need. What I have found difficult is when we were playing live, I could just set up a couple of cross mics, hit record, and we could get a decent live sound that worked for certain genres. But transitioning from that to a produced, CD-quality studio sound took years to figure out how to capture that in a home studio environment. I really had to go to the studio and figure out what they do and how they do their tricks so that I could buy the right gear, learn how to use it properly, and best emulate that sound at home. It’s an investment, and that has to be the right choice for a person.
As a counter example, if you’re in a band and you’re on a budget, maybe you just want to go into the studio and record an album’s worth of finalized songs in a few days rather than take the time and effort to set up a home recording option. Your money might be better placed going to an actual studio where they can give you hands-down the best audio that you can make. But, if you’re a person like me, who is in different genres of bands and who tries to compose and release different music for all kinds of different projects, you may not want to have to go into the studio every time you work on something new. So for me, it made sense to invest in the right home studio and be able to produce 85, hopefully 95, percent of the quality of the professional studio but with the ease and long-term cost-effectiveness of doing it from home. And I think those are some of the things to think about when considering home vs. professional studio work. It depends on what direction you want to go.
AW: Do you think there’s a must-have ingredient in every song that you produce? It gets uncreative if you have a formula, but I just was wondering if you have some sort of thing that you think always needs to be there.
DJM: Yeah, you don’t want to be overly prescriptive. I will say that one thing I keep learning again and again is the importance of having a wide dynamic range within a song. The heavy parts come on heavy, the emotional parts come on strong, and then it can be good to take a little breather before you get back into the next verse. Maybe you reduce the amount of instrumentation that’s playing, maybe you drop the tempo a bit, or sculpt the song–whatever style that may be–to ebb and flow through some energy. I find things like that work really well, especially when listening to a full-length album by an artist. I saw this type of focus on arrangement work out really well while I was a bassist in a many-person band, Q2, a few years back in Delft, The Netherlands. So I think that’s my first answer. I wouldn’t want to boil anything down to a recommended set of chord progressions or a particular organization for song structure or anything like that, but rather it’s a healthy range of dynamics you want to have in a song or in an album to evolve the emotion with the content of the song.
AW: How do you structure your sessions on EvolvEd?
DJM: Well, first, I want to understand what the individual wants to get out of the session and figure that out. I mean home studio stuff could involve a wide range of what someone might want to do in terms of styles and products. In many cases, I may not be the best person to help them, but I can always recommend somewhere else to look if I feel that will serve them better. So, I want to understand what their desired product is and go from there.
Of course, there are great opportunities out there to learn a lot of material in an organized and holistic manner. I’ve taken a number of Berklee’s online classes–they’re amazing if you want to learn all the fundamentals of mixing, or anything else like that. They are also great for enhancing your network through the people you meet. But it does take you about three months to do it, and it costs a pretty penny, so that might not be a great option for someone who just wants to dive in and with a song they have in their head.
Someone like me could come in and say “Alright, you’ve got this song and here’s what you want it to sound like, so let’s talk about how we do stuff.” I think the uniqueness of an approach like this is a focus on not necessarily the fundamental practices that you could learn from other places but really to use the class time to focus in a 1:1 way to create an actual musical product of interest.
I would want to help in a productive way as opposed to just teaching principles in an abstract sense. I want to make sure that they’re making progress on the product that they want to get out there into the world.
AW: Is there a superpower that you want to have?
DJM: I would love the ability to freeze time and have more time to work on all kinds of stuff. I just get so excited to work on all these different kinds of projects that I wish there weren’t all of the deadlines or finite resources. I wish I could just stop time for a little bit and work on something entirely new and let my mind go wild and just be involved in the creative process for as long as that may take.
Learn the fundamentals of home music production with Dave at evolved.live!
Check out Dave’s webpage to take a listen to his past projects!