Three-time Grammy winner Dave Isaac is an accomplished producer, recording and mix engineer for artists such as Marcus Miller, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, R Kelly and Luther Vandross. And Morris Hayes is a producer, keyboard player and not least the music director for Prince's backup band The New Power Generation. The two of them now produce as The Kommittee. That sounded like a wealth of wisdom when it comes to music creation, so we called them up to pick their brains.
Dave Isaac is first and foremost a producer, active in the music, television, and film industries. He grew up in Detroit and is, as he puts it, "a 60's Motown baby". Dave has been working in the music industry since he was 14 years old in various roles and genres. He started out as a musician, touring as a bass and guitar player. He progressed to engineering and programming (sound design), and further to mixing and producing. Today, Dave's forte is mainly producing and mixing, and he is gladly helping new abilities to get where he is right now.
Prince has always been ahead of the technology. Seeing him being able to do all he does really made me want to understand it better.
Music director and keyboardist Morris Hayes originally grew up in Jefferson, Arkansas. He started playing piano in his middle-school years at home and eventually at church. His musical education took off in the 80's at the University of Pine Bluff. Today, Morris Hayes is the band leader of The New Power Generation, the mighty group of musicians that back Prince up on his recordings and during his live appearances. Morris was hired by Prince in the early 1990's to play the keyboard live on his tours. Almost 25 years later, he is one of the longest serving band members of Prince.
You could divide music creation in three main parts; composing, arranging, and mixing. How do you look at those?
— Music is in me as much as air. It is really only two things that is universal, music and mathematics. Music is the thing that connects us, unites us and has the power to pick us up when we are down, make us feel like moving at any age, can unite us in a cause or even help us fall in love. It is a powerful medium.
That's what I love about the digital world. I can create a console with my own channel design with different components on as many channels as I wish.
— In regards to composing, it should come from the soul, your heart, and a creatively focused mind. A great beat, beautiful or memorable melody, complimented by the perfect chords. The lyrics should be something easy to relate to and visualize. In regards to sounds and arranging, the proper use of colors and chords that speak to a certain emotion. For example: a flute or flute color is light and fun, a bassoon or bassoon color can add a hint of curiosity. A solo violin could add sadness, et cetera. In regards to mixing, I think it's important to make the song three-dimensional so the listener is transported to the place that the lyrics talk about, or what you want them to believe happened in the studio. I love to maintain or enhance the transients. That's where the magic is!
— To me the most important thing about music is that it's about translating a feeling or certain emotions. Mixing, your choice of sounds and composing plays an important role in that. I remember as a kid listening to Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Ohio Players, amongst others, and just vibing on how the music sounded in my headphones and hearing the stereo image and wondering how they did it. The choice of timbres, the level of certain sounds, the chords, the vocal pads and melodies all came together to make a masterpiece. Balance was the key to me. All the parts were orchestrated right to make the song powerful.
I mostly like that I can rely on my ears rather than getting lost in a complex interface and all that.
Tell us more about your collaboration, how did you two meet?
— Dave and I met through mutual friends telling me, "Man, you got to link up with this dude called Dave!"
— We would run into each other at trade shows and seminars for years. One day I needed a particular set of speakers for a session, and Morris was the only cat in town that had them and wasn't using them at that moment. I borrowed them for a mix. When I returned them, we sat down and talked for hours. It was like coming across a long lost brother. We're still trying to decide who is the oldest. I say he is! He called me in to do a mix for a project that he was producing with Prince, and the rest is history. That was about three years ago. Now when we work together, and I watch him play, I understand why he's been with Prince for so long. This dude is so incredible! I think an angel gets his wings every time he plays!
— Now we have been collaborating for over a year and it is only the beginning. I can tell you I wish we had done it years ago! Dave is one of the most dope cats I know, hands down. He gets it on every level. He too is a student of music history. He cares about songs and talent. He understands it is art.
— We're working to develop our artists and bands. We have two bands, and several solo artists. We're also working on our own solo projects, which keep us very busy.
The Spring Reverb makes me high every time I hear it. And I don't smoke!
It is always interesting to know how the musicianship has changed over the years for a musician. What were things like when you started with music?
— When I started as a musician, performers went into the studio to perform. They captured it well, packaged it, then sold it to get people to come out and see their performance! You had to be able to do what we heard on the record. When I started engineering, it was in the analog tape days, way before software came about. MIDI was new when I started to get into the engineering side of things.
— I'm kind of old school and back then you had to actually know how to play or sing or dance.
What are your thoughts, looking back compared to how things are today?
— I don't miss aligning machines, lack of tracks, SMPTE, and everything else that came along with it. The ONLY thing I miss is that back then, you had to make a decision and record it! Nowadays, people record and believe that the mix engineer and software/hardware will magically make it into what they saw in their minds!
— While technology has gotten much better, it has made artists take a bit more for granted. Things back then were expensive, and it took a long time to do things. For example, you had to sing the choruses all the way to the end of the song. It was sort of a work out for the vocalist. Of course now we can copy and paste the first one we get and singers are out of the studio in short order.
I think it's important to make the song three-dimensional so the listener is transported to the place that the lyrics talk about, or what you want them to believe happened in the studio.
An interesting question is always software versus hardware?
— Both. I've been working with software since the mid-late 90's. Now it's more software than hardware. Of course, both have their pros and cons, but software is much more reliable to recall and travel with. Software is also a common sound that the world is used to now.
— I'll also say both. Again, I am old school but I love my technology! Everything is balance and I use the tool that best fits the job. Some hardware sounds great, works great or feels great! Software provides ease of use, variety and very affordable, in most cases. I have been on software since day one. I have seen the birth of the computer age in making music. Steve Jobs should have come to my crib as many Apples that I have had over the years!
Of course I would like to know which Softube plugin you like the most, and why?
— I use the Summit Audio Grand Channel and Tube-Tech Classic Channel a lot. That's what I love about the digital world. I can create a console with my own channel design with different components on as many channels as I wish. The Summit Audio TLA-100A Compressor is also a beast, and the Spring Reverb makes me high every time I hear it. And I don't smoke!
— That's a hard one! Well, the Passive Equalizer is great as well as the FET Compressor. They sound like they look! I mostly like that I can rely on my ears rather than getting lost in a complex interface and all that. I like running either one of my outboard synth units or virtual keyboards through them and give body to the instrument. It just sits great in a track. Thick and sweet!
Understand the gear you are working with so that you are able to navigate your own way on your project.
Dave, you have also been working a lot with music for film and television. What tips and thoughts would you like to share with anyone who wants to get into that field?
— Music for film and television is cool. It's fun to create around the timing of dialog, film cuts, and matching the emotion and energy of the scene. What's cool is that you could use the various Softube Amp Rooms to emulate sending a sound out into a live room to a speaker, choose the mic you want and distance from the speaker to give something a vibe.
And Morris, you have been working many years with Prince. That must be an amazing experience?
— Yes, I have had the honor to work with Prince for the better part of 25 years in some capacity. School was constantly in, as he is what you always hear people calling him—a genius. He has mastered not only any instrument he can pick up, but is also comfortable behind a mixing console as well. Prince has always been ahead of the technology. Seeing him being able to do all he does really made me want to understand it better. He could run a session like the engineers and that's why he could get things done so fast. I thought "Man! I got to do that!" I used to just about tear my car up getting back to my own studio to try what I had just seen him do! And there's an important piece of advice there—understand the gear you are working with so that you are able to navigate your own way on your project.
Any more thoughts about Softube or something you want to share with our readers?
— I always love emulations of real hardware. They just feel like home to me. The FET Compressor, and the Passive-Active Pack reminds me of one of my old systems. I like to use them just because I like feeling as though all of those years of my life are in each mix!
— We are in a wonderful age where we can do some pretty amazing things with software. Softube is at the leading edge of this musical era when you can produce incredible results with your computer. It is taking my music to new heights and I am sure it can do the same for anyone.