Careers: Interviews
Internationally Respected and Widely Regarded Freelance Sound Designer, Audio Engineering Consultant, Music Composer

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Jay Shaffer.

Jay is a renowned freelance sound designer, audio engineering consultant, and music composer with an extensive background in lighting, scenic design, art direction, record engineering/producing, audio/video facilities design/construction, video/theatre/TV direction, videography/camera operation/editing, 3-D graphics, web design, and computer game design.

His more than 20-year history of successes encompasses the recording industry, videos, films, and computer games including several awards for excellence.

Jay’s recent book credit includes, The MacAddict Guide to Making Music with GarageBand, which is receiving wide attention.

Discussion:

Q: Jay, as a leader in your profession, we are very fortunate to have you with us. Thank you!

A: Thank you very much for having me, Stephen.

Q: You have a college degree in Environmental Biology and then obtained a degree in Broadcast Communications. What triggered this change?

A: I was, and still am, interested in environmentally friendly architectural design. Friends and relatives said that I had a "radio voice" and eight years of school for an architecture degree seemed like forever. So I started taking classes and interned in radio stations. I liked doing production work more than being on-air. I was fascinated by faders, knobs, and blinking lights and had a knack for the technology. I also interned at a TV Station and finally an internship at the audio/video facility at the Denver Performing Arts Center led to my first "real" job.

Q: Give us a synopsis of the purpose and goals of your MacAudioGuy.com web site.

A: If you work in audio, you are always introduced as the sound guy or the audio guy. Being a Mac guy, it was a natural to name the site Mac Audio Guy. I had originally envisioned it as more of a site to keep track of pro-audio software available on the Macintosh. It has evolved into more of a resource for anyone interested in recording on the Mac.

Q: You have been using Macs since 1986. What are the pros and cons of Macs? What would you like to see added? What do you see in the future?

A: I started out on Commodore 64s because they were cheap and then Amigas, because they were considered the computer for video work. And I did a lot of video and 3-D work on the Amiga and Video Toasters up into the 90s.

Actually, upon further reflection, I lied, it was '87 when we got a Mac SE in the recording studio I was working at. It ran the first really great piece of music software on the Mac, Performer, a MIDI sequencer by a company called Mark of the Unicorn.

I soon got a Mac II for myself. Back then (pre-Windows) the Apple GUI was the only way to go with music software and all the studios had Macs.

All the great music software started out as Mac programs. Digidesign's Sound Designer evolved into Pro Tools, which for better or worse is the industry standard digital recording software. MOTU's Digital Performer is still the favorite MIDI sequencer among American musicians and Stienberg's Cubase and eMagic's Logic are the favorites across the pond. All these companies started making software for the Mac, although all of them are now available on the PC.

Pros and Cons of the Mac? I race sports cars, so I like to think Macs are like Porsches, different and better at doing the particular thing that they do. Where PCs are more like SUVs or Corollas, utilitarian, ubiquitous, practical and relatively unexciting. I have a PC for testing games, web sites and running stuff that isn't available on the Mac. I think that a lot of Mac users, still aren't ready to move to OSX and are getting left behind by the increasing complexity of software in general. Apple is hyping the digital lifestyle without letting the users know that they need a really fast machine and that they will have to go through a learning curve to use these tools.

I would like to see a $600 iMac to compete with bare-bones PCs. On the pro end of the spectrum I'd like to see a turn key HD video editing solution based on the X-Serve.

I think that Apple wants to dominate the digital audio and video production market. They have a good strategy with a software range from GarageBand to Logic Pro for audio and from iMovie to Final Cut Pro for video. On the other hand, they are competing with Avid/Digidesign on the pro end of the market. Avid/Digidesign has the advantage of having cross platform products and pro level hardware interfaces.

Q: What does it take to win awards?

A: Ha ha! If I told you, then everyone would do it! Just kidding. Some awards, like the Cable ACE Awards are like contest where you pay a fee and send in a tape and hope that the judges like it or that no one else is in your category. Others like RIAA Gold Records are purely based on sales, which means that you at the mercy of marketing and distribution.

I haven't won any that involve an academy yet. I hear that it involves going to a lot of parties and having a lot of close personal friends.

Q: This is a long question. What three tips can you share in each of these areas?

A: 1) freelance sound design

Use a shotgun approach. You might like a particular sound effect, the client will invariably like another.

If you hear something cool, record it

Try to always carry some thing to record with. A camcorder, Mini-disc or an iBook.

2) audio engineering

The first stage in a recording chain is the most important.

Use your own monitoring speakers.

Take 226 is always better than take 599.

3) music composing

Just start working, it will usually lead to something.

Try to remember the weird stuff you used to do before you got slick.

Usually, less is more.

4) lighting

Big diffuse sources.

There is moody and there is just plain dark.

You always can use another C-Stand (a piece of grip equipment that hold lights and other things)

5) scenic design

Get a budget.

Lots of levels. If the floor is interesting, you can get away with a lot.

If something onstage can fall down, it will.

6) art direction

Remember it doesn't have to be the Taj Mahal, it just has to look like it.

Suggest lots of close-ups of the talent. (the set goes out of focus)

The perfect location, isn't.

7) record engineering/producing

Try to remember that the band does have some musical talent.

Be prepared. Have the studio set-up and be ready to roll before the talent arrives.

Don't trust your ears after four hours in the studio.

8) audio/video facilities design/construction

Learn to solder.

You'd be surprised at just how small of an opening you can fit through to plug in a cable.

Clean steady well grounded power is everything

9) video/theatre/TV direction

Direction is an endurance sport.

Don't waffle. You're right, even if you're wrong.

The promise of free beer will get you another hour from the crew.

10) videography/camera operation/editing

Shoot from a tripod whenever possible.

You are rolling, right?

The batteries are not charged, unless you personally charged them.

11) 3-D graphics

3D Studio Max's XYZ is different than everyone else's XYZ.

Learn to light.

For games, you always have too many polygons and your texture maps are too big. Live with it. 

12) web design

What they want: A domain name, an unlimited bandwidth server and provider, database driven, active server, flash animation, streaming video, shopping cart, and a merchant account, that looks like a Madison Avenue design.

What they can afford: a Geocities page.

What they need: Four pages of HTML.

13) computer game design

Ugly games have to be good, bad games have to be pretty.

There will never be another Tetris.

Get off of the MMOG bandwagon before it's too late.

Q: What valuable lessons can you share from your current projects?

A: From writing the book. I had a young talented technical editor from MacAddict named Chris Fong and she would question any statements I would make about audio or music. Although I feel I was right most of the time, It did force me to evaluate my preconceived notions before stating them as gospel. After 20 years in the industry you start to become too set in your ways and you need an occasional reality check.

Q: Please share two surprising experiences.

A: 1) I am absolutely astounded that I was able to write a book. Thankfully my co-author and good friend Gary Rosenzweig was able to show me the ropes and encourage me. I used to loath writing. It took me three tries to get through the English requirements in college. But lately I've learned to really enjoy writing. It sure beats listening to the 50th bad guitar take at three in the morning.

2) I am pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive it can be to record music and shoot and edit video nowadays.

With a little bit of talent you can produce a pro-quality album in your basement or shoot and edit your own movie.

Now the distribution and marketing side of the media industry needs to catch up. I would be really surprised if THAT happened.

Q: Tell us two humorous stories.

A: 1) I'm not sure I have two in me.  One is while I was working in Fiji., I was the Chief engineer and producer for a company called South Pacific Recordings. We had put in a video facility which is funny because Fiji didn't have a TV station at that time. SPR was the major importer of movies on video in Fiji, both American and Bollywood. And our licenses allowed us to do commercial insertions in the Bollywood videos. So we had hired this couple from Australia to shoot video. They got a contract from the local meat processing plant called Fiji Meats to do a three minute video/commercial.  I recorded a song called the Fiji Meat Man in the style of Johnny Cash, which I sung (if you can call it that.) They taped the video of happy meat processing workers dancing through the meat processing process including waltzing with pig carcasses and sausage making in time with the music. It is hilarious and revolting at the same time. Surprisingly, the company bought off on the thing with a straight face. When I moved back to the States I got permission to show the video around. It became an instant comedy sensation and wound up getting the best foreign video award from WestWord, Denver's alternative newspaper.

2) I am a bit of a practical joker and the 1st of April is a special day for me. In the mid-90s I worked for company called Ingenius, which was an online daily educational news magazine for schools. One April 1st I got to work at 6:00AM and went around to sixty some desk and removed everyone's mouse ball and hid them in their cubes. Needless to say the IT department got flooded with calls as people got to work and fired up their computers. I had to 'fess up and got a stern talking to from the head of IT. I still snicker whenever I think of that one.

Q: What is involved in designing computer games?

A: I can only speak to the couple games that I designed while working at CleverMedia. CleverMedia is owned by my good friend and co-author, Gary Rosenzweig. He has probably designed over a hundred games and is probably the best Shockwave online game guy in the world. So I had a good teacher.

The first game I designed was a online rally racing game called Pretty Good Rally Racing. It's a straight forward 2-D racing game that looks like a 3-D game. The challenge with that one was to get reasonable physics, graphics and sound while keeping the entire game under 400K. Another game I came up with is a Flash based musical widget called the MP3000 that allows you to remix music and animated graphics and record your mix and play it back. I came up with that while drinking a beer on my deck after work. I got so excited about the idea that I called up Gary right then and we started working on it the next day. Both of those games and many more are still available on CleverMedia.com.

Q: Share your top ten tips from your book, The MacAddict Guide to Making Music with GarageBand (Que).

A: 1) Have some friends over for cocktails and trick them into recording some background vocal tracks.
2) Listen to your mixes on as many different speaker systems as possible.
Especially listen to your mix on a car stereo or two.
3) Unplug your home phone and turn off your cell phone when recording.
4) It’s easier to ruin a mix with too many effects than with too few.
5) Additional percussion instruments can often be found in the kitchen.
6) Really crazy ideas either succeed gloriously or fail miserably.
7) Don’t fool yourself—making a sound louder in the mix doesn’t make it sound
better.
8) Steal from the best; listen closely to and copy techniques from albums that you like.
9) Export several mixes of your song. Being able to pick and choose after your ears
have healed is priceless.
10) The cops usually come later if you close the garage door when playing. 

Q: Why should our readers study this book? What differentiates it from others?

A: I think that my book is different in that I approach the subject from a musicians point of view. If you look at the other books on GarageBand they are written by people like Mary Plummer and David Pouge who crank out books on a regular basis on all sorts of Mac software. Not that they are bad books, they just approach it from a computer users perspective.

My book shows not only how to use the software, but also how to make music using the software. Also, like MacAddict magazine, we take a little more edgy and humorous approach to the subject.

Q: What are the most compelling issues facing the top professionals in your area of expertise? How can they be resolved?

A: 1) Trade schools are cranking out more aspiring recording engineers and sound designers than there are available jobs. For example, There are probably 15 major games companies that have full time sound departments, and a single local arts college might graduate 30 people with a game sound degree. Of course, this is leading to a situation that the only jobs out there are teaching game sound in arts schools. I don't know how, when or if this will ever be resolved.

2) Clients are expecting expertise in so many different and expensive software programs that no one has the time or the money to learn any of them in depth. I try to explain to clients that in most cases it's not which piece of software that you use, but the final product that counts.

3) The record companies are dead, they just don't know it yet. The current model of music publishing and record marketing and distribution is going to change in the near future. Music production has already changed. I wish I had the answer on how to protect intellectual rights and royalties for artist. I think that ASCAP/BMI needs to take the song publishing process online and make it simple, transparent and cheap. And I think that every artist should be able to sell their music online for 99 cents a song like the iTunes store model and receive more than a penny of that 99 cents, which is about what they receive under the present system.

Q: You pick the topics: now provide us with those valuable rare “gems” that only you know.

A: Boy, that's a hard question.
I think the most important message I'd like to impart is that the tools to produce music or video are out there and they are cheap, $49 for the iLife suite. The hard part is to write a good song or a good script.

Q: What future books can we expect from you?

A: I'd like to follow up with a book on the next version of GarageBand or a book on Logic Express, Apple's mid-level music software. Or, on a completely different note, I'd like to find a publisher for a book on how to get into auto racing on the cheap.

Q: What are the most important trends to watch in your industry, and please provide some recommendations?

A: 1)The open source movement is a cool thing. There are a couple of really good free audio programs out there, and I'm a big fan of PHP and MySQL on the Web side of things.

2) Software instruments and audio effects processors are pretty big news, I used to have a Keyboard controller, two synthesizers, a sampler, a drum machine and a rack full of processors cluttering up my studio. Now I have probably 30 synths, three samplers, four drum machines and 50 effects all inside my Mac.

3) Because DJing and remixing are so hot, turntables and loops of sampled music that can be played back in different tempos and musical keys are how a lot of music is getting made. There is a cool new toy that hooks up to a turntable and allows you to control loops on the computer. I want one!

4) Another trend is for live musical collaboration over the Internet. Where I can work pretty much real time on a song with someone across the globe. Live streaming mixes by club DJs is another. Nothing like listening to a DJ spinning euro trance after midnight in Istanbul when it's two in the afternoon here.

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

A: My main computer is a Mac G4 hot rodded to 1.25 Ghz with 250 Gigs total hard drive with a M-Audio audio interface hooked up to my mixer. In addition an iBook with a iMic interface for portable work, an older P3-400 PC and my wife's G4 are on the network. Then I've got a couple older Macs laying around for my grand-kids to play games on. 

Q: Do you have any more comments to add?

A: If you are a musician who is computer-phobic, you owe it to yourself get a new Mac with GarageBand on it and then pick-up my book and we'll have you recording in no time.

Q: Jay, thank you again for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview.

A: Thank you Stephen. 'Twas a pleasure.

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