May 7 2010

Interview with Dan Workman


We are honored and privileged to post this interview with music producer extraordinaire Dan Workman. Dan is the President and co-owner of SugarHill Recording Studios in Houston, TX. A list of his credits would take up an entire post on it’s own but I encourage you to read more about him at his official biography here.

Dan also played his signature Casio SK-1 as well as various guitar bits on our song Listen To What’s Missing.

On tour with Kareem Salama

Dan Workman, Kuwait City, May 7, 2010 On tour with Kareem Salama

Do you ever listen to the CD’s you produced after the fact?
There are a very few that I have never listened to,…. not even once, but those are the rare exception. Some of them I listen to for weeks after they are finished. Some, I need a break from to listen to enjoy,…usually about 6 months. Back in the old days when I was mixing without automation, I could not listen to the songs without rehearsing the mix moves in my head! I’d dream those damn mixes, which really screwed with my enjoyment of the music!

What’s the most challenging thing about producing a record?
Hands down, the most challenging thing is to make the song the best it can be before you go into the studio. Make sure the story is great, the lyrics are economical and tight, and that the arrangement and performances are as good as humanly possible. That list really boils down to getting a great performance of a great song. Being able to facilitate that is a job that is unique with each project.

What are some of the things you’d like to see artists be more prepared for before going into the studio?
Write a killer song. KILL ME with how good it is. Most of us (me included) write songs that we like to perform,… that have a cool part in them that really sends us over the edge. While that is fine and good, a song writer and performer has to write and perform FOR THE AUDIENCE. You have to be able to totally captivate the audience with the song. It’s for them, not for us.

What’s been the most rewarding thing about being in the Recording Academy?
The connections. Once I got off my high horse, and started socializing and volunteering in the Academy, I met and became friends with people I would have NEVER had access to. Now I sit on the P&E Steering committee with my heroes: Sylvia Massy, Ed Cherney, Chuck Ainley, Phil Ramone, Nathanial Kunkle. These people consider me their peer. WTF!!!!!

Do you prefer natural acoustics when possible or post-recording effects?
Loves me some natural acoustics,… but that’s no surprise since I’m paying for the real estate at SugarHill to have incredible natural acoustics. While I also love my TL Space convolution reverbs, there is something so organic about a natural space. I can tell you that I have learned how the outside temperature and humidity affect the sounds in Studio A and B at SugarHill. So much so, that I mic things up differently in the Winter as opposed to the Summer.

Do you ever experiment with the recording medium itself?
Sure. I recorded a (Southern) Backtones guitar part on a portable cassette deck while pushing on the capstan with an eraser to make it wobble. I’ve sent signal backwards–in through the headphones output–on a 1970’s motorola receiver. My latest fun is to create crazy signal chains with the Casio SK-1

Any producer heroes?
George Martin, Tom Dowd, Nigel Godrich, Mark Trombino (mid-90’s Jimmy Eat World).

What’s the biggest thing you’d like to see happen in the Houston music community?
I want to see a badass Tejano Band open a punk rock show and see 500 punk rockers totally dig on it. Houston’s strength in the music world is our diversity. If we collectively put down our iPads long enough to venture out, I think that killer variety shows are the future. Screw waiting 2 hours to see your favorite band play for an 45 minutes. My idea of a good time is to see four or five bands play their finest for 20 minutes each, back to back.

What recording artist (living or passed) would be your dream to produce?
Well, some of them are dead. :) , I think that I would like to produce the world’s most accessible noise band, whoever that is. I’d also really like to take Two Star Symphony to the next level. Sh-t, how about 5 more levels,… That band captivates me. As for identifiable artists, I’d consider giving a body part to work with Imogene Heap.

Where do you see the music industry being in the next 5 years?
We’re experiencing a die-back in the business caused by two somewhat interrelated events: 1) commercial music became controlled and marketed by corporate entities who were beholden to stock holders and boards of directors, and their musical decisions sucked. Bigtime. So we got contrived mainstream acts that create music that is just lubricant for your day instead of art that is changing your life. 2) We are living in an age where we have not yet developed the discipline and methodology to find a balance between free digital distribution and paying for content.

We are going to mature past both of these barriers,.. I’m just not so sure how long it will take. In the meantime, there will be killer musicians, writing and performing and selling to smaller, but more loyal fan bases, which is fine by me. It is hard to see the dream downsized a bit, but I promise you, if you write soul-stirring music that defines the times, and your performances captivate an ever-increasing audience, then you will have a WONDERFUL career. You just might not own your own jet.

Any living musical artists you would still get star-struck by?
(Paul) McCartney. Almost sh-t a brick standing close to him. Thom York. If Jeff Tweedy would just take a f–king shower, I’d love to hang with him. :)

What do you consider your best strength as a producer?
Communication. I love music, and I’m a decent musician. I can figure out the grammar and vocabulary to talk and inspire almost anyone. I recently realized that I really love being a musician, and I love the company of musicians in general. When I help a performer to do his or her best, I feel like I played the part myself, hence my ‘musical reward center’ gets totally lit up by my work through others.

What’s the biggest “wow look what I did!” moment you’ve had while producing a record?
Tracking Beyonce’s (Destiny’s Child) Bootylicious. I knew that song was a hit after we got the first hook down. I said to myself, “If I don’t f–k up my part of this, we are making history right this moment!”, and I was right.

Probably more important are the many, many times that I have been totally blown away by a performance or mix. I never tire of seeing the work come together. My biggest triumph, really, is always the most recent record I have finished–I give my all to each project I take.

If George Martin and Phil Spector got in a fistfight who do you think would win?
Martin would take that punk down. Spector would be crying like a baby, and Martin would be sayin’ “Now THAT’S a wall of sound!”

Dan Workman elsewhere on the web:

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Aug 13 2009

Let me introduce to you the one and only Spinmeister!


Some of you may have noticed that name pop up in the credits for almost every one of our last 5 singles. I thought it time for a proper introduction. Like the 5th Beatle, or the 4th Musketeer, or the 150,001st Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia,  we too have our own “honorary” member. Fresh on the heels of our ’06 Red Room release, I met Spinmeister on a remixing website. I thought it would be fun to do an 80’s style synth-pop side-project with him and we called it “a minor theory”. We came out with a handful of songs of which I’m very proud. The project is still open, but our collaboration informally fused with my main project Wayside Drive. Since we were expanding out musical horizons in Wayside I thought there would be no one better to help guide us through some of those waters. It’s quite nice for me you see. I have this incredible keyboard player, arranger, composer, remixer, genius in my back pocket!

The man himself has been a monumental influence on me personally, musically, and professionally. He’s the one that opened up my eyes to Creative Commons licensing and remixing and is always helping the band to strive for continually better standards. It is an honor for me to not only have him as a friend and mentor, but as a “fourth” member of the band as well.

I thought a little Q&A would be nice to have him open up on some of the many interesting things that he’s brought into my life.  It’s well worth the read.

About Spinmeister:

The Spinmeister“Working from his recording studio in Vancouver, Canada, spinmeister remixes, produces and makes assorted noises on synthesizers, guitar and bass. Guided by his particular brand of pop sensibility accented with the occasional hint of warped musical humor, he can be heard remixing at, seen at his eMXR remixing blog and observed via the occasional tweet. “

What first inspired you to be a musician?

While I didn’t have any formal musical schooling beyond about half a years worth of acoustic guitar lessons, I grew up in a musical family with musical parents and musical siblings. We sang a lot and I remember my dad teaching me the 12 major and minor scales and the circle of fifths over a few long road trips when I was about 6 years old. This was well before I ever played an instrument with any seriousness. You might say, I simply had no choice – I was surrounded!

Were you fascinated by synths early on or was it a gradual thing?

In addition to music, my other great interest in my life became computers and I’ve always enjoyed technology quite a bit. Although I started on the guitar, and later played bass, once synths started appearing in mainstream neighborhood music stores in the 1980s, I became first fascinated, then hooked on synthesizers very quickly and they’ve been my main instrument ever since.

What do you think of the mass inflow of music software, from DAW’s to soft-synths, and do you think it’s a blessing or a curse?

I think technology is always a bit of both: blessing and curse. It’s all about how one uses it. With high technology you can make more dumb music faster, but it also makes it much easier to make very good music. While over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time and money on music technology, I simultaneously admire those music makers who do their thing low-tech by choice or by necessity.

Music has been intertwined with technology for a very long time, otherwise we’d still be singing and clapping our hands, rather than playing flutes, banging on pots and plucking on various strings. Just a little while ago, they discovered a 35,000 year old flute in an early human cave. So using technology to make music has been around for an incredibly long time. And the pipe organ started to have the ability to make different sounds (timbre’s) around the 12th century. That probably makes it an ancestor of a modern synthesizer. Software just happens to be our generation’s new technology. Making music with software allows me to do some pretty amazing things, but it doesn’t replace the joy of playing an instrument “the old fashioned way”.

What do you think of the current state of the music industry and do you have any forecasts of its future?

I think making money from recordings is falling victim to shortening supply chains, ease of production and resulting supply vs. demand economics like so many other industries – especially other media. What that means practically, is that the technology required to make a decent product has come down so much in price, that almost anyone can afford to create a media product, whether it be music, photographs, news stories, videos, even software itself. Add to that the abundant leisure time in modern societies, which allows many people to become good in fields that aren’t their livelihood. So you get this amazing supply of free stuff. And that puts tremendous price pressure on the commercial stuff. This has been happening in software for longer than in music. It has not killed the entire commercial software industry, but it has made quite a few kinds of software free. And that includes some of the best software around, including the software that runs this website.

In software, people had to come up with different ways of making money. Some with advertising, some with providing  special additional services.

I think music is headed the same way. There’s already a ton of excellent free recorded music and it’s growing faster than any of us can listen to it. So it will be increasingly difficult to make money with recorded music. I think the whole piracy thing is a bit of a red herring in music (just like it is in software).

However live musical performances are generally a much more difficult effort. Sure, software also increasingly plays an increasing role in it, but a very big reason for watching a live performance is
actually to see the performer do some physical stuff, that not everyone can do. So a great guitar solo or a drummer working up a sweat or a singer portraying emotion are things that software doesn’t do. Software never sweats or is out of breath. It doesn’t laugh or cry. That’s what people do. And people will pay to watch other people do difficult or emotionally captivating things. Therefore live musical performance probably has more economic sustainability. Also putting on a big time rock show with laser lights, multimedia and such is more complex and expensive than ever and therefore remains a much more scarce supply. Therefore I think live music will be able to generate money for some time to come.

What caused you to get involved with Creative Commons Licensing?

A few years ago, I tried to license some mainstream pop songs from the 60s to 80s, so I could post my own remakes of them on my own web page. Turns out that this was practically impossible, partly because every country has their own licensing mechanisms and my web page would obviously be accessible from anywhere in the world, since that’s what the Internet is all about. And I wanted to give my music away for free, while the websites of the licensing companies had neither Internet nor “free” anywhere in their vocabulary. So I gave up on traditional licensing, both as a user and as a content creator.

In addition, my experience with computer software had previously exposed me to alternate licensing concepts as in “open” and “sharing” and “free”. Most of the Internet is built on software that is essentially free. And for the most part I think the world is a better place for it.

The Creative Commons license mechanism made it easy for me to publish my works for free while maintaining some ownership and control over it. So I could let other people use my music for non-commercial purposes, but if someone wanted to make money with it, they’d have to get my permission (and possibly even pay me money, if I was so inclined).

And I can use other people’s Creative Commons licensed stuff in similar ways. So it became a no brainer pretty quickly.

Do you think every musician should release under Creative Commons or is it more tailored for certain groups?

If you’re not well known, job 1 is to become well known. That’s where Creative Commons licenses come in handy. Because it allows other people to use your stuff while mentioning your name. So when your friends and followers post your song on their web page saying how much they love your music, they help you to become better known. And publishing under a Creative Commons license, you tell everyone, that you’re perfectly ok with that and you won’t sue them out of house and home. :-)

If you’re already well known, maybe you want to give a cultural gift to the rest of the world. That’s also where Creative Commons licenses are great.

What would your advice be for a songwriter considering Creative Commons Licensing?

Assuming you’re an unknown song writer with more than one good song in you, make sure you become known first. Publishing under Creative Commons licenses can help you to do that.

And if you’re already rich and famous? Imagine, if Paul McCartney released one of his songs under a Creative Commons license. Or if just one or two Beatles songs were published that way. And we all could take a shot at making a version of those songs without having to go through the licensing cost and hassle. Would that make them more or less legendary?

Again, if you’re not yet well known, make sure you become well known. If you’ve made it, consider giving some of your creative talent to the next generation of creators. Classical music is such a gift and many a pop song has been written on the back of a great classical piece, and that classical piece in turn may have been taken from a folk song of years past. Us humans build on previous knowledge as well as on previous art. If that becomes too hard or expensive, we stop becoming smarter and more creative. And that would make us a sad species.

Why wait until you’re dead to allow people to build on your stuff? Wouldn’t it be so much cooler to see some of your creativity be the basis for another great creation?

I’m not advocating to give all of your work away for free unless you’re rich enough to afford that. For most people I would say: charge for some of your work and give some stuff away.  That way you can eat and you also do something nice for the world around you.

What caused you to get involved with the site?

I originally started remixing at Peter Gabriel’s remixing site. It was a lot of fun and the musical tracks were recorded with state of the art technology and by great recording engineers. That’s also where Jeremy and I first met. Soon thereafter, we started writing and recording a few original songs under the name of “A Minor Theory“. Since we had met because of remixing, we were curious what it would feel like to be remixed, rather than to remix others. So we created remix packs of our songs and told some of our other remixing friends about those. Many of the resulting remixes were amazing; quite a few were better than our original versions. It felt great to be remixed. So I started looking for a place where other not so famous musicians might want to be remixed. I had this idea of peer-to-peer remixing in my head. I remix others, others remix me.

And one day I found – it had already been around for a couple of years. For me it was like discovering America or maybe even better: Shangri-La! Here were other music makers who felt very similar to myself and the licenses were Creative Commons! As it turns out, the site was sponsored by the Creative Commons organization, but I discovered that only later.

What have you learned from your involvement with ccMixter?

ccMixter is a bit like a virtual music café. Music makers of all kinds of different backgrounds go there to speak the common language of music.

I’ve learnt that sharing your music is good. Interacting with other music makers from around the world is kind of a sequential time shifted jam session.  At ccMixter, I’ve musically interacted with classical music composers, hard rockers, techno dudes and hip hopsters, DJs, people with advanced music degrees, lawyers, mom’s, lawyer moms, teenagers, video makers, singers, songwriters and a dentist from Bulgaria who sings gregorian chants recorded in a centuries old church. Some world-class full time musicians – and others just taking their first baby steps in music making. I’ve even met people, who don’t play a single traditional musical instrument, but they can take music and sound samples and create collages, textures, and even songs from the various samples. They can hear a short snippet of a sample and remember not only who made it, but often also what bpm range it was and what other samples it might work with.

I’ve learnt that having something of yours used in a remix can be more satisfying than using somebody else’s music in yours.

I’ve also learned that not all attempts at making music work out all that well. Just like in any form of art, there’s a lot of dirt around the diamonds. Having people pre-sort through some of that is a real great service to everyone. Some of the playlists (also available as iTunes podcasts) on ccMixter are great ways of finding some of the good stuff a bit quicker. And every once in a while, even something that sounds kind of bad has a really neat idea buried in there. And in the world of ccMixter, anyone can take that little great idea and build something around and on top of it, that hopefully makes it better. And that’s very cool!

Also I’ve learned that a community can be quite nice to each other. And that’s not so bad, is it?

What role do you see social media playing in the future of independent music?

That’s a much tougher question. Most of the hype around social media is around the top one percent of the most notorious. But a lot of the really great action is in small communities of people who have something in common. I find it much more interesting to traverse the friends or followers of people who only have a dozen or two such links. Anything more becomes less social media and more traditional media. That’s how I’ve found some amazing small blogs or not so famous musicians, who create a labor of love rather than an industrial mass production.

Social media is fundamentally a communications medium. And being media savvy is a must for any independent musician, who wants to achieve any meaningful level of notoriety and/or commercial success. But I think, most social media as we know it today, is still one of those Internet fads. I don’t know what the next fad will be, but chances are that facebook and twitter will be supplanted by the “next hot thing” rather sooner than later.

What do you think will be the future of the major record labels?

To me they look a little like a train wreck in slow motion. Happens to every industry not keeping up with the times. Or an industry taking it’s customers (music purchasers) for granted. Or it’s suppliers (music makers).

We’ve all heard of Radiohead and Trent Reznor and the progress they’ve made in changing the industry from the inside out, but who are some of the unsung heroes?

Maybe my greatest heroes are the people who have conceived and written the amazing music making software, that most of us independent music makers use. Much of it costs money, but the good stuff is worth every penny and more. Some music making software is free and some of that is stunningly good too. These people have made good recording quality accessible to even a tiny budget.  For a couple of hundred dollars and your regular computer, you can have an entry level recording studio. For a couple of thousand dollars you can get yourself a setup, that rivals a medium sized studio from about 10-15 years ago.

Additional heroes are the people who have created the amazing software that runs the Internet. Because that allows music makers and music lovers to interact so much more directly.

Some of the other people I admire are featured on my remixing blog. There are numerous really neat people in the independent music scene. Some make music, others write about it. I’ve only discovered a tiny fraction of them so far and am looking forward to meeting more all the time.

You can keep up with Spinmeister at:
His website
His blog

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Apr 4 2009

Interview on Austin CW


When we were in Austin for the Houston @ SXSW show we had the privilage of being interviewed on the Austin CW by Terrell. Terrell is on Twitter as @TheFace_of_CW

Here is a link to the website

Here’s some photos from that day:

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