Mike here, and I had the great opportunity to interview a friend of mine in the music production world, one of the successful members of Professional Composers (you can join for free here).
He has had a very interesting journey as a composer and producer, with a lot of focus on hardware synthesizers and gear.
Hello Keith Myles, we are honored to have you share your story and wisdom here on Professional Composers.
Question 1: First, can you tell us how you got into the world of composing? For example: your musical background, and the story and journey that finally made you a composer.
My journey started as a child. I was born in a small isolated community in northern Canada. There was not a lot of entertainment like you have in a major metropolitan centre. we had to make our own. So piano, and organ seemed to be the instrument of choice. I learned organ as thats what we had in the house. I would have preferred a piano but it would have cost more to ship one where I lived then what it was worth! I started playing when I was around 8.
To give you an idea how far out we were, there was only one TV station and 1 radio station .. There was no satellite tv, and of course no computers.. Music was music , you had to sight read, no short cuts or youtube. and when your winter starts in October and goes till April you have A LOT of time to practice. we eventually moved 1600 KMs when I was 13 to civilization when my father retired. My new friends were musically adept, they played drums, bass, guitar. I was totally in love with guitar ( electric). I worked my butt off shoveling snow and mowing lawns and my mom took me to the music store .
I bought my first Fender telecaster when I was 14. Played guitar everyday till I drove my parents nuts and became pretty proficient. eventually you get tired of 1-4-5 chord progressions and you want to develop your theory more. So more study, I could also play “By Ear” ..
Eventually you get tired of playing or learning other peoples music. I was also pretty good at deconstructing tunes and breaking them down into their individual parts. So compositionally I guess I started making or composing tunes when I was around 15. The journey has been interrupted many times . School, University , multiple careers over 30+ years all good ..
Somewhere around 1980 when the apple 2 computer was available , I got one and used a plug in 61 note keyboard it was made by Syntari ..probably the first digital multitrack keyboard. I had a set of stereo speakers and an amplifier and a radio shack 4 channel mixer.
Career wise I was traveling for work , which meant I didn’t have much time to use the gear. and it was more for play and relaxation. Eventually MIDI came about .. I bought a Roland D-10 keyboard used and an IBM PC , a midi adapter and there was a company named 12 tone systems “Which became Cakewalk” had midi sequencing programs .. I was off to the races .. But career seemed to take over for several years in there and I had to come back to it .
Over the years I acquired gear, built a studio (second building) and produced odds and ends. The building has now been sold off and I’m trying to make room for my gear in the house ( no wife appreciation factor there) . I retired and January of 2018 and now have time to start over and get back to what I love.
Question 2: I know this is one of the tricker questions, but can you define your signature sound as a composer and producer?
Signature sound. Well .. I don’t think I have one .. It’s always a journey. I’ve been doing some electronic IDM/EDM mainly to learn, But recently but want to re-introduce more instruments .. become more Organic ( acoustic guitar).
My style would most likely evolve into something that would be synth bass , percussion and acoustic melody and rhythm.. I think thats the next step. My last composition was at the beach on holiday and it was more Island music then rock.. ( I was in the beach moment). I think the signature sound continues to evolve.
As a guitarist, we all want a signature sound and it can take years to find it . we want a sound that we can articulate to create or induce an emotional response and we want all the dynamics and playability as well. Eddie Van Halen found his both in the ‘Brown Sound” and huge technical ability. but they both go hand in hand. Deadmau5 also is unique and from my perspective a creative genius. very gifted. and he’s very capable someone who has found his sound but continues to evolve..
Question 3: You are very fond of using hardware synthesizers and gear. In what ways do you believe hardware can benefit composers and producers today?
Hardware .. yes its true I’m a hardware hoarder .. 43 synths at last count.. But I buy about 95% of my gear used . do I need this many?.. no ..one will do. Hardware introduces some interesting things for composers . One in some cases hardware can be technically limiting , which forces creativity (constraints lead to creativity). I use VSTs as well. but usually when I’m scratchpad composing. Hardware has its unique behavior. The best hardware that has come out has been multi-timbral synths where you can allocate instruments to midi channels all in one box.
Now composers can create all of their pieces and instruments in one place. and the bass lines and melody lines they create in their head they can now make happen Hardware has its good and bad points. Good from the point it offsets CPU load and you can get more out of your DAW. Bad in the sense that you now need to learn another tool in your toolbox. One of my favorite synths compositionally is a Korg M3M .. basically its a full production studio in one box .. you can even cut a master !. Do I know all of my synths in and out .. No I don’t But I know which one to apply for a specific sound and behavior for a composition.
VST modeling is improving every day , and the defining line between hardware and VST’s is getting thinner and thinner. This is really audible in Roland and their ACB analog emulation .. Its all a matter of time.. Hardware and VSTs allows Composers to explore and expand their compositional vision. The creation of “unheard sounds” drives creativity as well. In terms of Sound Creation , I get the most out of my access virus TI’s. Compositionally as technology frees up our computers to do more and create more complex sounds , Our musical pallet will evolve . Which means we can remain fresh and creative. I think thats pretty important.
Question 4: Continuing on the hardware synth topic, if you were forced to pick the top 3 synthesizers of all time, which ones would you choose, and why?
Okay .. top 3 synths… Hard call there are so many out there . and some are sort of genre specific. My personal choices may not reflect the current market but it would be an ACCESS Virus TI, Roland JP8000/8080. and a KORG M3M . but there are far more advanced synths than these.
My gear is elderly LOL. My goto is a mid 80’s Roland a90Ex 88 key master controller and a Yamaha motif XS Rack for piano. There’s also a slaved Roland Fantom XR and a Korg Triton rack hitched in there.
I see a lot of “is this synth better then that synth” or compare “X vs Y”. I try not to get dragged into that rabbit hole. How do you know its a great synth. its really easy. Can you create the sounds you hear in your head easily. Can the sound you create invoke an emotional response and can you articulate the sound via keyboard to further enhance the emotional response. If you can do that you have a “keeper”. yes there are a few duds in my collection that don’t get much love. I keep them to remind me as to what happens when you get too enthusiastic and impulse buy ..
Question 5: Would you mind sharing some practical tips on how to set up and use hardware synthesizers in a home studio setup?
Synth integration into your DAW is pretty easy now a days .. Most audio interfaces have MIDI on them . As a matter of fact when I cover off Ableton and students hunt an interface, I tell them to make sure they have midi on them. There is a lot of older gear that can be purchased inexpensively that will have the good old MIDI 5 pin DIN connection and possibly no USB capability . So you are limiting your hardware options without MIDI on your interface.
If you are running conventional midi its best to establish a template in your DAW. Which maps midi channels in the DAW to MIDI channels on your hardware . So for example. I have multiple Templates in Ableton based on genre and suitable synths in the template. So if I load up say a house /club Genre. The session will contain tracks for my Novation bass station, drum station, A station , and a virus TI.
If I want to produce say Documentary/film. The Template will load up my A90Ex , Roland Fantom, Yamaha Motif and a Korg Triton .. and an Akai 5000 sampler. The last thing you want to be during during a spurt of inspiration is to get tied down creating a template on the fly and mapping everything in . You’ll lose “the moment” . This has been a topic of discussion with other engineers and composers at breakfast where I live !. Its the old ” By the time I get the studio powered up and troubleshoot all the on the fly mapping I’ve wasted 45 minutes and I’ve lost the inspiration or desire to produce.
Learn your Hardware Synth. In my synth collection I would say I know 11 of my synths pretty solid. The others I can work with but I might forget something and have to look it up. You can’t know it all. And spend some time in Sound creation, its nice to have hardware but like everything we work with Time is at a premium. but the synth is only good as what you can do with it. I learned sound design watching some youtube videos.. I’d find a video on how to create a XYZ type pad sound.
Watch the video even if they used a different synth and VST then recreate it in hardware and cut and trim it to match up. Most synth controls have generic names across brands. So you can pretty much create anything…
Hardware does have a different sound. I can recall working with early VSTs and things sounded “Grainy”. and pretty rough. Hardware to my ear doesn’t seem to have those issues ( unless you introduce it). Anyhow, for those that want to try hardware there is a ton of “used” out there. And some fairly inexpensive used gear as well. But Beware! you need time to grow it!
Question 6: Where can people learn more about you, and listen to your music? For example your website or social media.
You can find me on the Music Composers and Producers Facebook forum. as well as on this forum with Mike (Professional Composers Community). I have a website coming online but its terribly behind: www.homestudiotech.net. it will get there but nothing published at the moment. and yes if you search for me on facebook you can find my personal facebook page. There’s the odd pic of studio and material their. Now that I’m retired, and to be honest a better engineer then composer. I now have the time to start creating new material. I’ll be posting up new material over September so hang in there ..!!
Any final words of wisdom & motivation?
My journey has been hit and miss, stop and go, times of frustration, and times of elation. But above all its finding time to pursue what you love. I am so looking forward this fall to be able to be in the studio at will and not doing the 9 to 5 job.
I hope this gives some people some insight and maybe even some inspiration . But one thing is certain, you will always be learning, and you need to do that..its so important to grow and build skills. I wish everybody the best in their journey!
My name is Mikael “Mike” Baggström, and I am a composer, sound designer, artist, video creator, coffee lover, and true nerd…
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