Musician, recording engineer, and producer Michael Thomas Connolly interviewed by Alex King for AFB
Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Michael Thomas Connolly is a musician, recording engineer and producer in Seattle, WA. Obsessed with learning new skills, Michael is avid multi-instrumentalist and performs professionally on fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, accordion, piano, Hammond organ, guitar, dobro, bagpipes, flute and pennywhistle. He runs the venue and recording studio, Empty Sea Studios, and has engineered approximately 100 full-length records in approximately 20 years of multitrack recording. He has performed and toured with Coyote Grace, and has appeared on ABC’s The Gong Show. He is a ham radio enthusiast, computer geek, motorcycle rider, and cat lover, and has recently switched to decaf.
AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: You play a lot of different instruments, both conventional and unconventional, and classical and folk. Does this experience make you think certain kinds of music are naturally suited to certain instruments; or is it just convention that makes us feel that way?
MICHAEL THOMAS CONNOLLY: I think the likelihood of the adoption of a certain instrument into a musical genre depends on a few factors. One is the availability of the instrument – it can’t be too rare, expensive, or difficult to maintain. Another factor, and probably the dominant one, is whether the instrument allows for expressiveness – according to the dimensions of expression within a given genre.
Dimensions of expression vary wildly from genre to genre. Take the example of blues – a musical sensibility evolved from African American vocal traditions of the rural south. Blues music was sung before it was played, but has evolved over the years to accept new instruments into the tradition. The key factor for most of the solo instruments used in blues is an ability to bend notes – mimicking the sound of the vocals. Acoustic and electric guitars allow for bending notes by pushing or pulling on the strings, and the slide guitar facilitates this through use of the slide itself. Thus, these instruments have the expressive dimension needed to properly do the genre justice. Even violin players have made great blues albums, because the instrument allows execution of these techniques. By contrast, neither the hammered dulcimer and accordion have made significant inroads into blues music. Both have fixed pitches and a limited palette of tones – making them less well suited.
There are also non-musical aspects to “expression” in certain genres – that is, the cultural context of the musical tradition. For example, a carbon-fiber violin raises eyebrows in a bluegrass jam session (and would in many orchestras as well), because reverence for the past and historical performance practices is considered a mark of authenticity in both contexts – and is arguably part of the musical genre itself.
There is a two-way conversation between instrument creators and musicians – both inform and drive development in the other. The creation of new instruments is often thought of by the inventors as enhancing existing genres – but instead, these new instruments make new genres possible.
[ed. See below Michael’s cover of Hallelujah on the Otamatone, an instrument created by the inimitable Maywa Denki.]
The history of the orchestral flute is interesting. Before the invention of the modern silver flute by Theobald Boehm in the 1830s and 1840s, the typical instrument used by orchestral flautists was a wooden flute with 8 silver keys. This type of flute had a reedy, full tone, but because it contains a conical bore, cannot play beyond a certain octave without being out of tune. This limitation was well understood by contemporary composers, who didn’t write flute parts which would require such a high register.
Boehm’s silver flute used a cylindrical bore and additional keywork to enable playing in an extended range of notes, including a third octave, while remaining in-tune. The compromise was a “simpler” tone and a weakened lowest octave, but composers thrilled to the new possibilities this instrument offered, and soon the wooden flute was all but gone from Western orchestras.
Significantly devalued, these wooden flutes became available secondhand inexpensively, and were adopted in great numbers by Irish traditional musicians, who now had access to high quality instruments. Traditional Irish music doesn’t make use of a high third octave, or in many cases the “chromatic” notes (think of these as the black keys on a piano) made accessible by the keys on the flute. So this style of flute remains the standard for Irish music, and is now manufactured without keywork at all.
Beyond instruments, advances in musical technology also drive the creation of new genres. For example, the invention of sensitive vocal microphones in the 30s and 40s made possible the “crooners” such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby – a vocal style which is paired against a relatively loud orchestra and thus is completely reliant on electronic amplification.
AFB: As a performer, but also as a recording engineer and producer, you have a very sensitive and developed ear. You notice lots of things that few others will. Do you think that we should all aspire to train our ears? Or do you think the rest of us are better off not noticing bad acoustics, audio clipping, and other common problems?
MTC: I believe that many of the things that I hear at a conscious level will actually be noticed and acted upon at a subconscious level by the general public. For me, I need to be conscious of issues in a song that I’m mixing so that I can try and fix the issues – but I believe that, without necessarily being able to articulate why, an untrained listener may simply prefer the song which is better mixed. It may make them feel more relaxed, or more able to listen “through” the recording to the performance itself.
I think of this as analogous to people with highly refined palettes for tasting food or wine. I don’t have such a palette myself, but I certainly recognize the difference between an exceptional meal and a mediocre one. Without being able to explain what’s happening, I simply prefer the good food. But without training, I think I would struggle in the kitchen to steer my own creations in the right direction.
AFB: Speaking of steering your own creations, when you act as a studio performer, engineer, or producer, do you see yourself as an additional creative and artistic force, or just an extension of the musicians’ intentions? And do you think that one or the other way is a better approach?
MTC: If I am not the producer on a project, someone else is (either the artist or a third party), and I am generally following their directions with regard to aesthetics.
If I am the producer: I consider the artists’ key contribution to be their stated intention for “what this song is supposed to do.” My key contribution is to use every engineering technique, studio musician, merciless edit, and coaching trick to get that intention to pop out of the speakers when we’re done.
I think it’s impossible to do that job properly without being a creative/artistic force myself.
On every project, we have to negotiate what areas of contribution are the artist’s alone, which are mine alone, and which are shared. I personally do not consider myself a composer or songwriter, and rarely have feedback on the actual composition (words and melody) of a song.
Arrangements and instrumentation are often a middle ground of push and pull between myself and the artist – I might suggest that a song would fare better with the addition (or subtraction) of an instrument. Quite often, I end up coaching singers to take a vocally different approach than they might have originally come in with.
Inexperienced musicians are often not as used to thinking in terms of listener response – their experience of performing the song feels more accessible to them. This can be problematic when their experience doesn’t come across. For example, it feels great to really pound on an acoustic guitar in the studio – you feel powerful and like all the energy and vibe is getting across. However, it doesn’t work like that. If you overplay an acoustic guitar, you end up with a very small, trashy sounding recording. My job as a producer is to remind people that their feelings in the studio are not sufficient to convey those same feelings to a listener.
Finally, during mixing, due to the ear training we talked about, I will generally be operating on aspects of a recording that the artists don’t tend to think too much about – stereo imaging, types of reverb used, tonal colors of different effects, etc. Here, artists typically trust me to carry forth the intention for the song that we’ve used for each stage of the process – and we can evaluate the results using that same metric. But I’m technically left to my own devices, and honestly, I have far more “choices” to make in this phase than others.
AFB: When you’re on the other side, as one of the “main” musicians, do you have a different opinion?
MTC: The last time I was a main musician on a recording, I was producing but not engineering. It was a pleasant change of pace to be able to let go of the thousand tiny details of engineering and focus just on musical/performance aspects. When I do session work for other people’s projects, I let them call the shots, and again, it’s nice to not have to be the Decider on everything.
AFB: Leo Tolstoy famously thought that “peasant art” expressed more important and universal feelings than other kinds of art. You play, produce, and distribute a lot of folk music. Do you think Tolstoy is onto something and that folk music is more authentic, real, or raw than other music?
MTC: I think there is a certain quality to “folk” music (and I use that word extremely broadly) which distinguishes it from other forms – and that is the idea that the producers and consumers of the music are more closely tied together in community. Most world traditions of folk music are essentially people making music for their own entertainment – the square dance, the jam session, the circle singalong, work songs on a boat or agricultural field, etc. This is a collaborative effort for the mutual benefit of a group.
Distinct from this are musical forms in which a more obvious power structure is present. Classical music in the West is largely about poorer people composing and performing for richer people – serving as living jukeboxes in a sense. Much of mainstream pop music is driven by an engine of commerce from ticket sales to record sales to endorsement deals. So I find it less authentic in the sense that what it appears to be is more distant from what it is.
Folk music is certainly not immune from this authenticity gap opening up. I personally love getting together with folks to play fiddle tunes from Ireland, the home of some of my ancestors. I make no claims to be an Irish peasant myself, and I recognize that the songs speak to an experience and culture that may have been my ancestors’, but is not my own. However, the mechanics of the experience – having the producers and consumers of the music have very similar intentions, contexts, and socioeconomic power, make it feel authentic for me. It stops feeling that way when the culture itself is packaged and commoditized – see: Riverdance.
AFB: On a related note, most people don’t realize how highly produced both live and recorded music are – even music that deliberately sounds un-produced. Do you think that production differences (more vs. less produced, or more vs. less produced-sounding) can make music into something better or more authentic?
MTC: Personally, I think of all forms of recording (or at least audio, film/video, and photography ) as extremely reductive. We capture a tiny fragment of the reality that was in the room. A microphone captures the sound passing through single point in space in a room, as a camera sees only a two-dimensional projection of an image from one vantage point. Therefore, I don’t think there is any “fact of the matter” about what recording of an event is the most authentic one – and I’m not bothered by that.
Instead, I would suggest that any act of recording is actually a creative one, full of choices. There are engineers (often, self-identifying as ‘recordists’) who favor a minimalist aesthetic, using as few microphones as possible, and minimal “straight wire” processing. However, I don’t agree with their premise that these techniques bring them closer to capturing reality, or authenticity. Instead, I would say that these techniques are themselves an aesthetic, and when you listen to such a recording, you are hearing the expression of that aesthetic as much as you are the actual recorded material.
Another way of putting this is: the production technique plus the material tell the whole story together. I love listening to oldies from the 50s and imagining the whole band crowded into the room, the tape reels spinning, and everybody smoking their lungs out the whole time. To say that a new version of “Going To The Chapel” recorded today onto a hard drive would be more or less authentic doesn’t make a lot of sense to me- instead, that recording would tell a different story. Recordings encapsulate the stories of not only the musicians, but the engineers, the time and place, and even the histories of the instruments and equipment used.
AFB: That’s very interesting! I want to shift gears now and ask you some questions about the music industry, given your extensive industry experience. Lots of people think that the internet has democratized music and made it accessible in ways never before possible. Do you agree? If so, do you think that this has been an overall improvement for the music industry?
MTC: The internet and the digital age in general has certainly democratized the tools of recording and distributing music – and also learning how to play! It’s shocking to see 8 year olds on YouTube nailing every Van Halen solo – but a natural consequence of the availability of the recordings and videos of VH’s performances to study – and the inspiration of seeing other 8-year olds on YouTube playing.
In terms of the recorded music industry, it’s hard to argue any position other than that these same tools have completely decimated it, financially speaking. Inflation-adjusted sales of recorded music are at an all-time low since recordkeeping began in the 70s. It’s not hard to see why – not only is almost all recorded music available for free, the sheer quantity of new music is overwhelming. In media of all sorts, anyone with an Internet connection has many lifetimes’ worth of free media available to consume. Usually these days, I put heavy airquotes around “music industry,” because there seems to barely be one. The one exception is in music for TV and film, where revenue streams still exist.
AFB: On that note, readers should also check out some of Michael’s own music on Bandcamp. (Full albums are available for purchase.)
You know, this discussion also reminds me of Tolstoy. Another thing he thought was that art in the future wouldn’t be created by well-off, art school-educated people, but by anyone, and would therefore be the kind of thing everyone could enjoy. So far, maybe, so good. But he also thought there wouldn’t be professional artists because they’d be “unable to understand how an artist, whose chief delight is in the wide diffusion of his works, could give them only in exchange for a certain payment.” But the decimation of the music industry raises difficult questions about this issue. Do you think artists are wrong to want payment? Do you think people are unwilling, now, to pay for music? And do you think they should be willing to pay for it?
MTC: Tolstoy’s first sentiment echoes my feelings about folk music and art – which I believe will never die completely, because it exists outside of financial drivers.
As for the question of paying for music: yes, as a touring musician, record producer, and reader of the news, I can certainly report that people are unwilling to pay for digitally distributed recordings of music. I use those qualifying words, because people do seem to be more willing to pay for physical artifacts containing recorded music (most notably, vinyl records), and for experiences of live music. It’s not lost on me that those are both tangible in a way that an iTunes download is not, so I hardly blame them for not getting excited about paying for a digital artifact with notably poor archival properties.
At the small scale, I know many artists who have stopped making records because it simply makes no business sense to do so unless they are touring regularly and selling physical CDs or vinyl – in which case, what people are actually purchasing is a physical memento of the show they enjoyed more than the literal audio itself. At the large scale, record sales are a small fraction of a superstar like Beyoncé’s income. For 2016, she made $6.4 million from streaming and record sales, and $54.7 million from touring.
Finally – do I think people “should” be willing to pay for music? Emphatically, no.
I do believe that media creators should have the right to control access to their intellectual property – that is, if I want to charge for my music, that’s my right, and you shouldn’t steal it and distribute it online without my consent. Furthermore, it would be immoral for a fan to redistribute it without my permission.
Take away the case of illegal distribution, however: if people are simply not interested in paying for digitally distributed audio recordings – that is, they’d rather not listen than pay – I don’t see any “should” there. I don’t consider anyone obligated to support my art if they don’t value it.
AFB: Well that’s a very clear position! And thanks for the interview! I have one last question, er, instruction. Please fill in the blanks as you see fit: “Aesthetics is for the artist as ______ are for the _____.”
MTC: Aesthetics is for the artist as baseball cards are for the players.