This interview I did in 2015 for the Ello Ambient Community with a very interesting guy, Don Tyler. He’s a Grammy Nominated Mastering Engineer and currently records with Chris Bryant as Ascendant. They also launched Synphaera Records together which releases some mighty fine electronic music.
I’m reposting my interviews here on Lines as I plan to stop posting to Ello - and more importantly - I think people here might enjoy them. I’m not a great interviewer or writer. I did these for fun.
original interview as posted to Ello:
Welcome to the first elloambient interview. We’re kicking off the series with an interview with musician and mastering engineer, Don Tyler. Below are seven questions and between each is a little bit of info and links to various projects Don is a part of.
I truly enjoyed getting to know Don through this interview and I hope you enjoy it!
John K-N: Don, you’re an accomplished, Grammy nominated engineer. You have several ongoing musical projects from your solo Phase47 albums, collaborations as Ascendant, Fire Temple, Plasticon, etc. You play live gigs. You have a family. How the heck do you have enough time to do all this! I’m jealous!
Seriously - how do you juggle the mastering work, family, and personal music?
Don: One of the hardest things I’ve had to do is learn to say “no” — to find the positive power in an inherent negative. I used to try to say yes to everything that came along, but it just got to be too much. I’m much more selective these days, and I’ve found that when the right things are in your life, it’s easier to find a natural harmony between work, play and family.
When the right things are in your life, when you’re spending time working on the right projects, with the right people, you can feel it. It’s a powerful force that brings its own energy and flow with it. Along the lines of the adage that, “follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”
When you’re on that path, it’s easier to find balance between the different aspects in your life.
John: This is such very good advice for life. I used to say “yes” to everything - and it’s very hard for me to say “no”. I’ve gotten better at saying no as the years roll by. I’m personally still out of balance, but I’m working on it! Great advice - I hope everyone reading this tries to follow a little bit of it.
Don: Not an easy one, this, but the equation gets simpler the more you see the positive side of declining projects. It’s an ongoing process, that balancing act. Especially in the music business, where opportunity is hard to come by, and everything is inherently speculative. When you’re hungry, and you’re just starting out, you tend to take on everything that comes your way, and then seek out more. It can be hard to break that cycle, even years (or decades) later.
More about Don
Don Tyler is a Los Angeles-based Grammy-nominated mastering engineer with an extensive discography that includes luminaries from all genres of music. From multi-platinum acts like James Blunt, KISS, Barenaked Ladies, Cake, New Radicals, Beck and Elliott Smith, to old favorites like Devo, Love and Rockets, The Pixies, Dead Can Dance, and Bow Wow Wow.
In addition to mastering, Don produces electronic music under the pseudonym Phase47. Frequent collaborators include David J. Haskins (Bauhaus/Love and Rockets), Jeremy S. Gluck (Barracudas), Pieter Nooten (Clan of Xymox), vocalist Åsa Seljestad, as well as cellists Christine Hanson and Joyce Rooks.
Current projects include Ascendant with ambient artist Chris Bryant, Fire Temple with Christine Hanson, Plasticon with Jeremy S. Gluck, and Transponder with Steve Pierce.
Back to the Interview…
John K-N: How did you get into mastering for a living?
Don: I went to film school. I was enamored with film sound. Star Wars sort of got the ball rolling on that. When i graduated, I got the dream entry-level job at Skywalker South, back when they had dual facilities, one up north and one in Los Angeles. After about a week though, reality sort of shattered the dream, and at the same time, I had an opportunity to produce an album with somebody I’d gone to school with. The album was fully funded and allowed us to start a production company, so that’s what we did. I did that for a few years, but at that time in Los Angeles, there were a ton of little places popping up, so competition drove prices down and there wasn’t much future there.
Fortunately, Precision Mastering in Hollywood had caught wind of my work and the studio manager there called me one day on my home phone and asked if I’d thought about a career in mastering. I said no thanks and got off the phone, because I’d been to mastering sessions, and it didn’t seem like there was fit there. I thought about it for a couple minutes and then called them back and said I’d come in and talk to them, and give it a shot.
It was love at first EQ.
John: Interesting! It’s unfortunately a regular occurrence for someone to go to school for one thing - get there - find out it’s not quite what they imagined and start on a new path. Then again you learn so much from these experiences and you often “find yourself” through the process.
Fascinating you said no immediately - and then called back and went in. The universe at work there I think.
Don: Yeah. At Skywalker, it was sort of like, you start in the machine room loading reels. And there were guys in there who’d been in there, it looked like, for a very long time. Oliver Stone was dong ADR on The Doors, and I’m thinking to myself, okay, this is a union gig, and each one of these guys would have to move up the ladder for me to get out of the machine room and into a mix room or sound design room, which is where I desperately wanted to be. After a week or so of loading reels, I started doing some math, and it was looking pretty bleak.
I often wonder how things would have worked out if I’d stayed on. At the same time, not too much longer after I left, Lucas closed the facility and decided to keep things close to home in the Bay Area. Who knows?
At Precision, one of the assistant mastering engineers was leaving, so I took his room, got four days of training and then it was literally sink or swim. It was challenging on a technical front first and foremost, because back then, there were consoles, and the digital clocking was finicky, everything was SMPTE-locked. Just to cut a CD-R in the 90s was this exotic practice and… I don’t miss that aspect. When I think about how much technology has changed in the past couple decades, the future is looking bright indeed. It’s basically allowed us to let the machines do what they’re good at and let us focus more on the creative side, not just in mastering, but with production in general. Playing live too.
More about Don
Ascendant consists of electronic music producers Chris Bryant (S1gns of L1fe) and Grammy-nominated mastering engineer Don Tyler (Phase47 / IO Mastering).
Sonic soundscapes, drifting melodies, complex sequences and skittering beats define their sound as they offer listeners a taste of their own creativity and vision combined.
Back to the Interview…
John K-N: I’m reading an interview with you from August 2014 where you talk about growing up in 80’s
Don: I’ve been making music on and off since I was a teenager in the mid-80s. Starting with punk & new wave, then gravitating toward electronic music with a distinct ambient vector. Turns out we were way ahead of the curve in the late 80s and had to wait for the world to catch up with ambient music.
John: It’s crazy how much I can relate to that comment as that pretty much describes me (our influences also overlap quite a bit) - and the later 80’s is when I started stretching out and merging beats with longer textures and atmospherics.
Tell me about how your more ambient music has progressed from those early days in the late 80’s to now in 2015.
Don: In the mid-80s, we were doing these little 4-track songs, and I found that the more we drifted away from standard song format, the more interesting it got. Soon we were into concepts, and creating whole worlds around this music. The more we stripped away, the better it got. I found that I was drawn to repetitive patterns, sequences, minimal chordal movement, if any. More textural. More atmospheric. Less… songlike. The guitars disappeared after awhile and we delved into the purely electronic. I found my home, and if you listen to that early stuff, you can clearly hear the fledgling ideas that have evolved and matured along the way.
At the same time we were recording 4-track stuff, we were moving away from punk and new wave, rediscovering Eno’s ambient work, the Berlin school electronic music of Klaus Schulze and the other electronic pioneers, all the 4AD stuff. Like after punk, so to speak, and it all informed what we were doing in one way or another.
I knew we were on to something, because there was this huge gap in electronic music at the time. I didn’t hear anything then like what we were doing. The maverick stuff from the 70s had either disappeared or moved laterally into new age or film soundtracks - not all of it, but much of it. There were people out there like Steve Roach, who were doing their own thing like we were, but it was a very small scene at the time. Underground to the point of being nearly non-existent.
This went on until college was over and real jobs kicked in. After I started mastering records, it would be like, what do I want to do when I get home after a day on a Prince record, or a day on Tom Petty, or whoever we were working on, and making serious music just took a backseat for about a decade. And it was during this time that the second coming of electronic music was upon us. The Artificial Intelligence compilation had hit, and bands like The Orb, Aphex Twin and FSOL were suddenly stars, it was fantastic, the world had caught up, but at the same time, I felt like, geez, we were doing this five or six years ago! It was just bad luck timing on our part.
I spent much of the 90s simply mastering records, diving deep there. And though I still had an active home studio, the yield wasn’t very high. It wasn’t until, I’d say 2001 or so that I got back into serious production in various collaborations with David J (Bauhaus / Love and Rockets). Good times.
To the point of your question, over all this time, I realized that in the early days, I was drawn to sequencers, minimal movement, minimal everything really, and that’s stuck with me, and those things have been refined over the years. Even in a purely ambient drift piece, I’ll often put a little sequence in there, some form of structure or repetition.
The other thing that’s evolved and become paramount, is the feeling you get when you listen to certain kinds (or artists) of electronic music. John Foxx, let’s say. Or Klaus Schulze. The “feeling” is as important to me in a piece of music as anything else sonically. That spirit has to be there in the work – there has to be an emotional engagement. If it’s not present, if there’s no connection on that level and it’s not being felt, the track goes into “revisit later folder” and then I move on.
John: I’m also a fan of minimal (as well as repetitive) music. The fun little ‘boom’ of the 90’s… I can’t count the number of times I’d be playing a cd and my wife would ask if it was me or not (and it wouldn’t be). Yes - somehow wasn’t in the right place at the right time - and frankly - I wasn’t pursuing it anyway - so even if the luck would have been there I wasn’t ready to receive it.
I love David J - old Bauhaus / Love and Rockets fan… what project did you do with him?
I loved weekends in the 80’s where friends and I would go rent a 4-track and a drum machine and then spend the entire weekend recording. Some fun stories around that I’ll share elsewhere. And yes - I gradually shifted from synth pop into longer form songs - and started dialing back the industrialness - and pulling back the driving drums - until I realized I was really loving ambient all along and it just took a bit to get there.
I love ambient with beats though… ambient techno or whatever you want to call it. I hear that element in your music as well.
Totally agree… “feeling” is such a key element. If it doesn’t feel right - I let it go.
I’m a little scared how much overlap there is between our history and thoughts.
Don: I was ravenous about Bauhaus in high school. Easily my most listened-to of that era. The great thing about mastering was that I was able to work with some people who’s music I’d adored. I mastered most of the 90s-era 4AD catalog, including The Pixies, Dead Can Dance, Lisa Gerrard, which was a huge deal for me. And then working with people like Devo, Bow Wow Wow, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and other bands that had been an integral part of my musical DNA was… i don’t even know how to describe it. You can imagine my reaction when David J phoned.
We became friends outside of mastering, and one night after he played a gig in this small old Hollywood speakeasy, I had this idea for a project. He was in, and we formed a little trio called THREE. We had one release on ARRCO. And then we were constantly doing things for about 4-5 years. We did quite a few remixes, and different tracks, some small live things. That work with David is what really pulled me back into the home studio. We are still collaborating, but the work has shifted to the written word the past five years or so.
It’s funny, that whole ambient with beats thing. In the 90s, it was interesting that bands like FSOL and Aphex Twin and The Orb were being tagged as ambient, and as an ambient purist at the time, I had mixed feelings about that. I came to realize though, that aside from production methods, branding, and the endless labyrinth of genre definition, ambient, when it comes down to it, goes back to “the feeling” of it, and the intent behind the music. Impossible to codify, but you know it when you hear it, and you know it when you feel it. I can’t overstate how important the “intent” aspect of music making is - tremendously powerful.
More about Don
Slow-burn Static. Pure Ambience. Electronic Evocations. Pop songs for Ghosts.
Back to the interview…
John K-N: You and I have lived through quite a few media changes over the years. Since we were both teens in the 80’s - I know you lived through record stores having vinyl and cassettes and the gradual switchover to cd’s… and then smaller labels and artists able to make homemade cdr’s and then digital files.
What do you think of the current state of affairs? An artist has a lot of options these days - what do you think is the best method for an artist to get their music out there?
Don: Well, it’s nothing for an artist to get their music out there presently — there are numerous sites absolutely filled to the virtual brim with it. And that’s gotten to be a bit of a problem. Everybody is in the same boat, and it’s being flooded with music. So the next question begs, what’s the best way for an artist to get noticed? What’s the best way for an artist to get their music actually heard once it’s out there?
If you want to do this seriously, and you want to be noticed, and you want to move from hobbyist toward professional — and when I denote the two strata, it has absolutely nothing to do with quality, talent or dedication. We all love making music, and we all would probably do it regardless of circumstance, but it’s more like, a professional expects, or at least endeavors, to earn a decent or fair return on their investment, whereas a hobbyist maybe just wants to put stuff out there and if people like it, cool. This is a simplification to a nearly untenable degree, I realize, but for the sake of discussion, let’s carry it through to a conclusion:
I’ve been criticized for saying this, but the thing is, if you’re putting your music out there, and are taking it seriously, you need to come with more than just the music if you want rise above the noise level. You need the whole package. You need art, graphics, a logo, webpage(s), a commitment to social media, a live show, everything. It’s just not enough to drop the music on Bandcamp or Soundcloud if you want to move from hobbyist to earning a return on the investment.
People have been critical of this notion, because they say, “wait a minute, it should all be about the music, first and foremost, and nothing else.” I don’t disagree with this, but we’re living in a reality where mankind has never had such ubiquitous access to so much music (and everything else.) It’s impossible to get noticed, or heard, so you need to bring the whole package, as much as you can, to the best of your ability, and that helps to rise above the noise level. At the same time, I realize this isn’t the goal of everybody dropping tracks on Soundcloud. It’s all good either way.
John: I agree with just about everything you list and have been preaching it to people that ask me for advice for years… you can’t just do the music - that’s just a piece of the puzzle. You’ve got to package it, engage with listeners, put yourself out there. And some artists are really good at it and others really need help. To be an independent artist you have to be a musician and artist, a business person, marketer, designer, you need to network, reach out and talk to people.
Yes - all around…
Don: It’s almost impossible to get your foot in the door or get any traction unless you come with the complete package as much as possible. When we started with Ascendant, I was completely ambivalent about things like Facebook and Twitter, but it became quickly apparent that these things were tools that are part of the puzzle. Especially since we’re booking ourselves, handling promotion and radio contacts ourselves. Everything. It helps to build a solid network, and increase your reach beyond the friends and family circle.
More about Don
Fire Temple is Christine Hanson and Don Tyler.
Back to the interview…
John K-N: I have a lot of conversations about pricing an album. Commercial vs. free netlabel. Having full album streaming vs. an album sampler. I can easily see and understand many sides of these debates. What’s your take? What do you think about pricing, previews, streaming, etc…
Don: We were just talking about this today with regards to Ascendant and previews, as we’ve got a new album looming, and a new label behind it. I don’t like full previews so much for pre-release because, once people hear it, even just a preview edit, then they’ve heard it. The mystique is gone. Maybe it goes from a day-1 purchase to a “I’ll pick it up eventually” purchase. This is on projects that have little sample previews of every track on the album. (Maybe one full song is better?)
Same goes with streaming the whole album pre-release or on releasee day. I get the promotional aspects of it, there is huge exposure for a new album, but I wonder how that in turn affects sales. If I’ve just heard your whole album, am I then going to go right out and purchase it? Maybe less likely.
I guess the argument is slightly moot post-release, because if you’re on Bandcamp, people can preview the whole thing anyway. I’m still pondering all this presently - the timing is relevant - great question!
For me, radio is great for promotion or preview. And so are club DJs. There’s still something compelling about the discovery process of hearing a track on the radio (terrestrial or otherwise) or in a club. Maybe it’s a generational thing because we had to physically hunt for music in the 80s. Pre-internet, and all that. The hunt was part of the fun. There were no previews. Many times, especially with imports on an unknown artist, you were basing decisions on label, album cover, peers, etc. It meant more, I think, maybe without the instant gratification. I’m not sure what the right balance is today with regard to that - the instant preview, streaming, etc. Certainly, there’s more music easily available now, but sales are down overall, so something isn’t right. This is definitely an ongoing investigation.
As far as cost. I like LPs at $7 digital. $10 physical. EPs at $4. That gives us a fair return on investment, and it isn’t gouging. With Ascendant, we’ve also got an album that consists of singles and tracks that have appeared on compilations that we offer as “name your price” on Bandcamp. People can enter $0 and it’s theirs for free, or they can literally pay what they want. Most people pay a buck or two, sometimes more, and that’s great. It’s just something we like to do to give back because we’ve been very fortunate on the sales side of things with our fans, so it’s been a great win/win.
The free net labels,… I see them as a form of curation I guess. Taking a certain concept or genre, or certain artists, and curating a collection of music that in turn, allows people who are fans of whatever they’re curating to find the good stuff more easily. The thing is, there are so many net labels out there now, I wonder about the effectiveness. Every time you turn around, you bump into a net label.
The other thing that seems to be ubiquitous are the vanity labels, or the predatory labels that simply collect huge amounts or music & publishing and then play them like penny stocks – like bitcoin carpetbaggers. That’s the dark-side of the digital revolution I guess. What we really need now is quality over quantity in all areas. Ivo from 4AD understood this back in the day - present a singular aesthetic, and be pretty ruthless about what goes out on the label. Ultimae records I see as a good modern-day equivalent.
I think we’re going to see the pendulum swing back from the all you can eat buffet type labels, and I think more genuine labels, with real distribution and operations, that strive for quality over quantity will begin to emerge and join the ranks of labels like Prologue, Ultimae, Minus and others. Who knows, the next golden age might be right around the corner.
(Can you tell we’re about to launch a record label?)
John: Wait… launching a record label? I didn’t catch that at all!
I just listened to an album sampler and I have to admit - it drove me nuts… 30 seconds of a song where the sounds are clearly lasting longer than 30 seconds… just as I start to find the center of the track - it fades and another comes in. If an artist doesn’t want to post entire album previews - I’m all in favor of 2 or 3 tracks as previews. That way I can hear what the full feeling of the album is going to be.
I hate to say it - my personal opinion - that magic rush that came from driving 45 minutes to the nearest record store - buying Dead Can Dance and coming home and putting it on the turntable - are gone for me. I want to hear the album before I buy it. Just like you’re mentioning the struggle on your new record label - we have the same discussions on my label. I’m more the “let people hear it!” guy - where my business partners are more the let’s do samplers. That’s ok! We can disagree. Ultimately we let the artists decide since it’s really their release and they keep all the money anyway.
I agree with you on pricing… good amounts there. Also agree on netlabels being more about good curation - the good ones become good because they’re consistent and focused - and yeah - you can’t turn around without bumping into a netlabel.
Ultimae is one of my favorite labels. Almost everything released is something I can spin over and over and over and not get tired of it. Part of it is I simply love that type of music - but beyond that - Ultimae is so consistently good, mastering, packaging, the whole process.
So… you’re going to launch a record label? Details?
Don: On Ascendant’s Source Transmission, we’d sold through our first run of CDs, and small retail outlets were asking for more - very small quantities, but still, for an indie release, it was amazing to have that kind of interest from places like Jama in Switzerland, and to have our CD sold in the Ultimae record shop in Lyon. So we were at a bit of a crossroads with Ascendant, we were thrilled with the success, but at the same time it was starting to become more than we could manage on our own at the time.
I’ve always been independent-leaning, and unless we could find the right label, I’d just assumed it would stay that way. Once you go down the path of even just looking around, though… it’s like casual house-hunting or looking for a dog at the pound. It doesn’t stop until you’re buying the dog food. You just get sucked into that vortex.
The short-story is that we spent a few months talking to people & labels, but couldn’t find the right fit. Met some great people in the process, and some of them have become friends and advisors. At the same time we were doing that, we were working to make the operations side of Ascendant more efficient, and it became self-evident that, wait a sec, what was starting become more than we could manage, became easier because we were forced to get organized on the business-side of things, so Chris (Chris Bryant - the other half of Ascendant) and I decided to take the next step and formalize that side of things into a business, which entailed a couple weeks jumping through hoops of fire with business licenses, graphic designers, and the rest.
Keep an eye out for Synphaera Records. We’ll be launching over the next couple weeks or so. Bonus points if you can spot the reference in the name.
John K-N: Your favorite book of all time and why? If you’re not a big reader - feel free to go with any other type of media… movie, tv show, comic, etc… Or go nuts and tell as about a ton of them.
Don: Oh man… I’m an avid reader. Just rabid about it. I read as much as I can, everyday. There’s no way I could possibly name a favorite, there’s just too much volume.
What I can say, that as far as informing the music, during those fledgling musical projects in the 80s, I was reading science fiction at the time - heavily into Asimov and Clarke and Herbert, and those books most definitely had a profound influence on the music. Those books just carried a mind-expanding feeling with them that seemed sympathetic with the music we were creating, conceptually… on every level really. I’ve never really lost that connection between the kind of inspiration and feeling a good book can bring to any given musical project. The music I’m involved with is heavily conceptual, so it all goes together.
I still read science fiction among other varied stuff. Currently knocking out Iain M. Banks’ last work.
John: I vividly remember reading William Gibson - Neuromancer and going ‘wow’. I was mostly a fantasy fan - and a history fan - just about every major series. I read tons of history books. I do think everything I soak in - whether a book or movie or tv show or video game or walk around the back yard watching our two chihuahuas play… somehow ends up in my music. Some things stronger than others.
My wife and I used to visit a cemetery / savanna which was a beautiful place in Peoria, IL to drive and walk around and take photographs on a Sunday with a cup of coffee. The peacefulness, the nature, the rolling hills, the monuments going back 150 years. All those people’s lives and the little remnants left of them on their headstones… I have an entire album someday that will come out of those experiences.
Don: Neuromancer. Such a watershed moment in the genre. And the thing about that whole cyberpunk movement, and you just knew at the time it was going to be short-lived, like anything punk, was that it fit perfect fit for the music I was listening to at the time. Stuff like Skinny Puppy, Front 242, Frontline Assembly. The music was a reflection of the fiction, and vice versa.
That reflection, that lateral translation, can be its own inspiration. When we were talking about Plasticon, and getting the ball rolling on that project, were we talking about musical references? No, we were trading movie stills from Kubrick and Roeg films. Like, “I want the music to feel like this.” Inspiration from books and film, are tangible, no doubt.
More about Don
Don has two more projects: Plasticon with Jeremy S. Gluck, and Transponder with Steve Pierce.
Back to the interview…
John K-N: I’m out of questions - so here’s where I want you to think of the question (or questions) you wish someone would ask you so you can tell us all about it.
Don: I’ll just give you an answer, and you can add whatever question you think might go with it, or simply leave it quiestion-less:
Answer: Minimalism. Less is more, in almost everything.
Bonus Answer: Yoga.