Interview Date: 3 July 17
Tony Anderson's Music: Listen Genres: Cinematic
Very few of today's artists are unable to convey the heart, passion, and nostalgia that cinematic and electronic producer Tony Anderson does in his productions. Years upon years of driven work must be poured into ones craft in order to reach this level of artistry in not only the field of music, but for any art form. It’s not every day you get to interview an artist with this level of expertise and we were pleasantly surprised to get a chance to have a chat with this ultra talented producer. So sit back and relax as we discover the mindset, motivation, and techniques needed to make a timeless production.
SoundShock: What made you want to start making music and and how have things changed since then?
Music was never a childhood passion of mine. I quit piano lessons in elementary school, and was never classically trained, meaning I don’t know how to read or write notation. I never connected with anything in the athletic realm, either. I ate my first donut out of a trash can if that tells you anything about my athletic capabilities. I did collect Pokemon cards. And I did resemble Jigglypuff by age 14.
On the music front, I remember hearing “Busy Child” by The Crystal Method on the radio in high school, and I couldn't believe what I was hearing - some strange mixture of sounds that, at the time, seemed incomprehensible to put together. Later, my friend gave me a copy of Fatboy Slim’s “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby,” and the track “Right Here Right Now,” changed my life forever. That tune is still one of the greatest I’ve ever heard.
At the time, EDM was called “breakbeat," “electronic,” or “house.” I was fascinated by how one person could mix electronic and human elements together with a computer. My family is full of geniuses, and some of them are musical prodigies…we had everything from trombone, clarinet, drums, french horn, guitar and piano in our home - not to mention my grandparents sang in the Miami Opera for 50 years - just mind-blowing heritage I stepped into. But I never connected with a single instrument. I wanted to hear all of them together. In 1999 my brother illegally downloaded a copy of Fruity Loops 3 to our family computer and I was hooked. I started making my own music on that Dell desktop computer with the worst speakers humanity has ever created.
My music was the worst…and eventually I took that computer with me to college. In 2005, my roommate suggested I stop writing terrible electronic music and try the cinematic route…music for film. I had never worked on a film and had no idea how write music for one. But lo and behold, a couple of months later, I was contacted by a director of a non-profit and who said he had a movie for me to score. I took the job, which forced me to learn how to record and mix live instruments. I didn’t have the money for it, so I took out a $2,000 loan to buy a laptop and slightly better speakers.
Slowly, I was given a few more documentaries and short films to score until, in 2008, reality destroyed me. My friend Noah, who had been hired by Hans Zimmer, allowed me to visit the Remote Control complex (Hans’ studio in Santa Monica). My mind was blown after my visit and I applied for an internship there, thinking I’d get in. Wrong - the leadership at Remote eventually told me my skill level was so low that I “shouldn’t even call back…” Noah tried to help me work though some difficulties in how I wrote, produced and mixed, but a year later, I quit writing music. I figured if 7-8 years hasn’t yielded music that was worth listening to, my “career” was over. I embodied millennial ego and impatience with perfection.
All your tracks tell an engaging story that keeps the listener interested and excited throughout the entire song. How do you come up with the theme/emotion and develop it throughout the song so the listener stays engaged?
My unique contribution through my music is how I phrase melodies and chord progressions. 95% of the emotion in each of my tracks comes from how I move between moments. My production quality isn’t stunning, and neither are the mixes I do myself. I know 13 year olds who engineer audio better than I do. This juxtaposition confirms that people care about how your music makes them feel more than they care how it was produced.
In terms of my process, being that I need a visual reference before I start composing, the first thing I do is make sure the initial chords I play on my piano match what I’m seeing. “Does what I’m hearing match what I’m seeing?” I turn everything audible off in my DAW and watch the footage as I sort through an initial set of chords. This painstaking process helps me to lay the foundation for the universe of the music, an anchor of sorts. Chords are soil in which something good can grow. My melodic universe comes next, and usually follows in the days after the chordal foundations are set. Melodies take time, infinite hours of looping a concept, sleeping, coming back to it, recording it with the instrument you thinks serves it best, then re-recording, and so on. But melody (and I don’t mean a John Williams “in your face” melody) is how we all connect with music. Melody brings us into our nostalgia.
Everything I release is guided by a core value, which I think every producer and composer needs to have. A single statement. A question. An anchor that guides every step of the musical process. Mine is in the form of a question, and it’s simple…
“Does this deserve to live?”
Every note. Every millisecond. Every moment. Does it deserve to live?
If it’s worth releasing into the wild, then I keep it. But if I lose interest after a few days or weeks, I kill it. I’m pretty sure that if it moves me, then it will move you. I have one chance to leave an impression on you with each song, and if I release the song prematurely, I’ve not only given into impatience, but I’ve lost my chance to release something truly beautiful into the world, and you’ll be unchanged as a result.
If we as producers can’t tell the difference between music with soul and music without, we must stop writing music for a few years (which I did) to determine whether or not we’re actually gifted as a composer or producer. Many of us are not, and that’s okay. Music with a long shelf life deserves time, and we have to be in for the long haul it takes for a song to develop. This means stepping away from the desk. Sleeping. Resting. Destroying and rebuilding. It also means getting into a quiet place without noise so that we can think clearly about where the song wants to go. One practical way to remove the pressure we all feel to release something as soon as possible (because we’re all afraid we’ll slip into irrelevance) is to get the hell off the internet where one can find endless stores of empty music written by empty people like you and I. We all write better music detached from the comparison game.
Your tracks contain a lot of real instruments. What sample libraries and Kontakt instruments are you currently digging?
Layering is an art form - and usually involves several real synth performances mixed in with samples, live musicians and anything else laying around on my hard drives. But I never want anyone to be able to identify a damned preset from Omnisphere in my music. Or a string transition from Spitfire’s Chamber strings. I like to make a wall of sound out of each melody or chord so that I eventually forget how I made it or which ingredients went into cooking it. I use real instruments at the beginning and then add heavily processed software instruments to compliment, strengthen or widen. Here are a few I’m loving right now:
+ Omnisphere’s Keyscape Creative Library
+ OTO Biscuit (by Universal Audio)
+ AMS RMX16 (by Universal Audio)
+Fabfilter Pro Q2
+ Ampex ATR 102 (by Universal Audio)
+ Lexicon PCM Native Random Hall
Okay, this is a big one. For many electronic music producers, music theory is a big struggle and it shows in their music. Either they don’t know what to learn or how exactly to apply theory to write compelling progressions, melodies, and harmonies. If you use theory when writing your tracks, what specific parts do you use and what topics do you feel producers should know?
It’s no secret that I don’t know theory, but neither do 95% of my contemporaries. The idea that theory is necessary is a lie. Theory helps greatly, but music is intuitively inside of us before it’s learned. Training and classrooms are there to help us flesh out the raw gift inside many of us. Some of us (like me) figure out music over the years by having a piano or a MIDI controller in the studio. Others, like deadmau5, use the MIDI drawing function within a DAW to figure it out. Either way, we eventually learn basic theory, just not in a classroom.
But we can’t stay where we are forever. It’s necessary to surround ourselves with those who are fluent in both theory and their instrument. This helps us learn as we go, so we need to be attentive listeners (I usually book an extra hour of their time before a tracking session to run through the ideas before we start recording to see what the performer’s “better version” of the music could sound like - and their own version usually more nuanced! All of my fiends who perform in my music know that I do not know theory, so we’re on this journey together…
If you’re struggling (like me) to improve your musicality, you’re going to need the following formula for each of your tracks:
Math + Time + Silence
MATH: You have to know the math of your song in its entirety, as well as each section of the song. This isn’t like educational math…it’s emotional math. Knowing whether or not the math works on your tracks means asking questions like “is this melody addictive? If so, why? And if not, how do I rebuild it?” Knowing your math means asking “is this chord anticipatory or is it signaling a decrease in energy?” or “should I give the listener less of this so they want to hear more?” If the math works, people will want to hear the song again. If the math is wrong, fix it!
Keep in mind that math ought to result in simplicity. Make as much complex, nerdy music as you want, but when it comes to mass appeal, make it simple and memorable. I learned this concept from a producer named Max Martin. He always asks "How long does this _____ need to last?” He’ll destroy, rebuild and re-record whatever he needs to over and over again and after 8 hours, if the “math” is right, then he lets it go. You’re going to have to decide what your standards are, but your listener should still want a little more after each section - and they should want to hear the song again.
TIME: We must learn to possess patience. The self control and humility to walk away from the music. For hours. Days. Weeks. Months. Perhaps years. Anything written then day of sounds fantastic - especially when it’s loud, compressed and loaded with HF EQ. Repetition in playback from the DAW deceives us into thinking that certain rhythms and melodies make sense - but only a good 8 hours of sleep and a fresh perspective in the morning can reveal if what we’ve written deserves to live.
This is an extreme example. I have a song that I have been working on for a year that no one has heard except the musicians who played on it. The song still sucks - it needs to have vast portions re written. Does that aggravate me? Hell yes it does - but it’s my ego wanting to get it out “now” lest I slip into irrelevance.
If you have an song that deserves to live, you have one chance to release that song. Your listeners deserve your best - don’t feed them bad food. The time away, the time you spend upending and renovating sections and the time you spend in the mix makes the difference between something life changing and something forgettable. If your song is going to have a shelf life, it will need time in the barrel - like fine wine. Let it sit. Let it ferment. Let it do nothing for a while - maybe the song isn’t going to change, but maybe you will! All of us can outproduce the best producers if we have patience. Will we learn - or will we join the hurried, hustling rat race of millennial music production?
SILENCE: The most difficult and the most necessary piece of our music. I have found that sensory deprivation before I write music is very helpful. I usually do the float tank where you float in salt water for 90 minutes unable to hear or see anything. This has worked very well for me because my brain is carrying noise with it all day. We are always thinking what was on Instagram, what was on Twitter, and what is so and so producing. If you make music from a competitive motive, it will sound powerless and weak. That is not what music was designed to do. We are supposed to put our unique stamp on it. What makes artists successful is that they put their own spin on their music. As a music producer, beginning with silence will improve your sound immensely. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but lack of sound makes good sound. That is what this generation is not doing. We are not taking the time to be silent and meditate. I sit in silence in a meditative state every morning to clear my thoughts. because I know that when you create sound, you need to do it from a pure place. So math, time, and silence are my recipe right now and this matters to me more than theory. If you have these three, your tracks can actually have a shelf life.
Many producers starting out today just want to get their tracks as loud as possible and to write the next big hit with a larger than life “drop.” Your music shows that you don’t need a “drop” to write a compelling track. What are some techniques you use to keep your ambient tracks interesting? Also, do you have any advice for producers that are fixated on having loud tracks with “big drops?”
You Only Have 15 Seconds:
Most listeners skip through tracks after the first 15 seconds - maybe 30 if they’re feeling generous. The logic then implies that you’ve got 15 seconds to establish a world for the listener to be drawn into - and they deserve your best. What I do is work to hook their soul right away - and that doesn’t just mean a hook or melody. It might mean texture. It might mean intimate instrumentation or timbre. It might also mean energy and power. If you can drill down to get your first 15 seconds to be unforgettable, you’ll do well. You want people to recognize it right away. Set your standards high and follow through with excellence form start to finish.
Ditch the Drop:
Breakdowns and drops usually exist to cover up and mask poorly thought out music. If your song isn’t very good (and if you’re attentive enough to realize it), a massive build followed by a drop are a helpful diversion to keep the listener from recognizing the lack of substance. We need to move towards making every millisecond matter instead of focusing on massive crescendos. Let’s ask: “Does every part of my song deserve to live?”
Turn Down the Volume:
Everything sounds better louder. But dial down the volume and sit with your idea for a few weeks to allow the intricate details to emerge. I intentionally write and monitor 15-20 dB quieter than industry standard. This doesn’t just save my ears, but it forces me to pay attention to the substance of what I’m writing instead of how it makes me feel. If you can learn to create music at a quieter decibel level, you unlock a world of detail.
Compression is a Crutch:
I don’t produce with a buss compressor or EQ on the master output, either. This forces me to shape each individual layer with EQ and compression as I write so everything sounds mixed and intentional before a mixing engineer gets ahold of it. I work as hard to get the song to sound glued together before adding any compression or limiting.
Anyone can make loud EDM, but we’re finding that loud EDM lasts about a week on the shelf. So our challenge is to make timeless music. To make every moment count. We don’t have to cover everything up with a drop if every moment has intention. Again, “Does this deserve to live?” If not, then why release it? I’ve been told that my music invites people into different worlds, and if that’s true, the listener might be feeling the love that I put into every millisecond of the song. I’m aiming for total immersion.
"Breakdowns and drops usually exist to cover up and mask poorly thought out music. If your song isn’t very good, a massive build followed by a drop are a helpful diversion to keep the listener from recognizing the lack of substance." Tony Anderson
What is the hardest part of producing and how do you work around it?
Turning off the noise.
The internet, the music culture and what our peers and “competitors” are doing is all noise - it’s mindless bullshit. But it feels really important most days, in fact it actually drives me most days. Finding peace in the midst of it all is the hardest thing on earth. In light of that, since this struggle has been going on for over a decade for me, I do the following:
+ Sensory Deprivation Tank: 45-90 minute sessions every other week where I float in 98 degree salt water without anything audible or visual to distract me. The body begins to relax after the first 30 minutes once it recognizes it’s in absolute sensory deprivation and weightlessness.
+ Contemplative Silence: Every morning before the computer gets turned on. I keep my phone and my watch in another room when I do this so I enter into the silence without a sense of time or space. This is not meditation, transcendental meditation, mindfulness or prayer. This is time set aside simply to be present as I focus on a singular thought that’s my “anchor” throughout. I am not engaging distractions, to-do lists, people to text back or even my own ambition. I am learning to come to complete silence and stillness before I begin making sound for the day. I’ve been at it since January and I suck at it. The most I can go right now is 15 minutes and it’s by far the least productive thing I do all day.
The tension and release in your tracks are epic! How do you go about arranging your instruments and chord melody structures so they create these dynamic and satisfying tension and releases?
Tension and release comes from the ebbing and flowing as the song unfolds, and that’s only going to occur if you show love and affection to every layer. Think of the ocean moving - several currents colliding with one another, lots of uncontrolled movement. Lack of predictability. Infinite depth. That’s what I’m going for as I begin my journey into cinematic music.
Reverb is my most important tool - I use 15 or 16 different verbs in an average session, and I print the verbs into the audio tracks so I don’t have to waste time figuring out the latency delays that each reverb plugin causes (I can’t stand “low latency mode” in my DAW, so I just commit my verb to audio. This way, you can select just the reverb tail of a massive 2 minute long track and use it as a sample. At that point, reverb becomes an instrument - or a paintbrush - if you dive into this, you’ll end up with samples of reverb tails that blow your mind.
Melodies can be extremely tough to write. How do you approach writing melodies that hit the listener on a deeper emotional level? Also, at what stage of the process do you write melodies? After you get a progression down?
Stay simple and layer.
Layering is key (I usually have 10-12 layers of the same “line” packed into a singular melody you’re hearing…it sounds like one melody, but there are 10-12 layers making that single line up, each with different instruments, processing, and EQ on them so they don’t cancel each other out). Every single producer I love does the same thing, and this technique has been around since technology allowed us to stack. Keep the idea simple, but layer.
"Tension and release comes from the ebbing and flowing as the song unfolds, and that’s only going to occur if you show love and affection to every layer."
All your tracks have very clean and impactful mixes. Any tips on mixing your strings, pads, vocals, ornamental sounds and drums?
I’ve been producing for 15 years and only in the last few months have I been “okay” with my own mixes. I prefer to have somebody else mix, since engineering isn’t my strength.
Find an engineer who’s hungry to learn, and pay them well. You have one chance to release this music, and if you rush the mix, you will regret it.
Find an engineer who knows what they’re doing and mixes music in a similar genre as yours. Let them take it to the next level once you’ve taken the tune as far as you can. A great engineer is creative by means of mathematical precision, and they approach your track without all the emotional attachment you’ve had with it since it was birthed. My friend Chad Wahlbrink always takes my tunes and blows them out of the water - and he does this because he spends as much time mixing each week as I do writing. Both of us have our niches, and I trust him more than I trust myself - it’s an abolsute release of control.
If you are going to mix your own content, here are a few things I’ve learned over the years:
+ Use different buss compressors for different styles of music. Some of my favorites for non-transient based music are the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor (the plugin by Universal Audio isn’t perfect, but it’s close) and the Manley VariMu optical compressor - both are “optical.” Optical compressors tend to smother sharpness and punch while gluing together anything non-percussive incredibly well. For tracks needing punch, the API 2500 and the Dramatic Audio Obsidian are fantastic. Never stop playing around with the attack and release settings - that’s where the magic happens.
+ Summing has changed my life. In simple terms, summing happens when you send the stems of your song out of your DAW into different inputs of an outboard summing unit (I use the Burl B32). The summing unit’s job is to take all the different streams of audio coming into it and blend it into the perfect stereo image before sending it back into your DAW (for that step, I use the Burl B2 A to D converter). Summing units will often treat each of your layers with the dignity they deserve. Summed stereo files somehow possesses more width, depth and dimension than stereo files simply bounced out of DAW.
+ Test your mixes in your car, your iPhone headphones, or anything else you can get your hands on that sucks. 90% of people listen to music from bluetooth speakers, laptops and phones. I’s sad, but it’s reality…for now.
With the massive amount of music that is out there right now, it can be difficult to get your music heard. Any tips for producers looking to get their music heard and stand out from the crowd?
My favorite winemaker on the planet is Francois Mitjavile. The guy owns land in the most coveted area of Bordeaux, France. But he hasn’t bought into his own hype - or the hype of the region (where wines can easily sell for hundreds of dollars per bottle). When his neighboring winemakers are bottling their wines to sell, he refuses to. He waits. He actually keeps his wine hidden in barrels for another year before bottling. Not a few weeks, not a few months…an entire year, and sometimes longer. This means that at great financial loss, he is always a year “behind” his competitors. Always a year “late” to market. But when people tasted his first vintage, they lost their minds. “Where did this guy come from? Why haven’t we heard of him before?” Anyone who’s had the wines of Francois Mitjavile instantly forgets about classifications, politics, and price - instead, we step into another dimension. We are taken into another world with each bottle…simply because one man decided to let his wine stay hidden, in the dark for an extra year.
It’s not in quantity of releases that we will be heard. Just the opposite. Most of us need to release less music. And what we do choose to let out into the wild needs to be necessary. It needs to be critical - it ought to deserve to live.