Interview: Producer – Joe Bagale/Otis McDonald

Joe Bagale, also known as Otis McDonald, is a San Francisco-based producer and artist whose music prompted me to reach out for an interview, as it's uncommon to come across someone with a home studio setup  that hasn't succumbed to the sonic trends that can be heard across today's music landscape. With 2 solo albums under his belt, and a bevy of music on Youtube, I found it easy to become sufficiently familiar with his sound to come up with a number questions to throw his way.

Hi Joe. Thanks for responding to my interview request. Can I start by asking you to tell me about your musical beginnings?

Sure. My father was a music teacher, and I'm the youngest of 3 boys, which allowed me to absorb a lot about music from my older siblings growing up.  I started playing drums when I was about 7. At age 10, I started on the trombone and taught myself guitar and bass that same year. Around 12, I started messing around with the piano, and by 13 I was in my first band. Drums, however, were the main instrument that I studied and went to college for, though I'm a multi-instrumentalist who always loved playing different things.

Many artists nowadays can be heard bandwagoning trends in their compositions and productions, which has led to flood of music sounding the same across a number of genres, from pop to hip-hop. But when I listen to your stuff, I hear a throwback vibe of sorts to what was being made in the 60s and 70s. How is it that you retain these sensibilities when many of your peers seem to have abandoned them?

I was hip to records at a very young age. When I was a kid in the late 80s, hip-hop was a big thing, and people were still spinning vinyl. Then I got introduced to The Beatles at age 12. Their Anthology was being aired on national TV, and my family would sit around and watch it, and I got hooked on these working class guys who had put out so much amazing music in just a 7 year span. That made me want to hear The Beatles on vinyl, which I was able to do thanks to my dad's vinyl collection. My father made me alphabetize his record collection as a part of my chores, which introduced me to the likes Jimi Hendrix, Yes, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and things like that. I've never thought that any of the music released nowadays was good as that stuff. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden are the types of bands that inspired me when I started playing music. Those are bands that I think had great sensibilities, and built upon what came before them. The pop music that came out after that didn't really pay any reference to any of the stuff that came out before.

I don't write music to be on par with what's happening today because I think the most legendary artists come from the 60s and 70s. A lot of what I hear in pop and hip-hop nowadays is just a kick and snare, with an 808 to compensate for the bass-line; there's not much going on melodically or harmonically. It doesn't sound very timeless to me, whereas albums like "Fulfillingness" by the Stevie Wonder and "The White Album" by The Beatles just get better every time you listen to them.

I've seen flashes of what your studio looks like in videos on your Youtube channel. You seem to be fond of analogue gear. Has that always been the case?

I like analogue equipment. We always had a home studio in my  house when I was a kid, with instruments and a reel-to-reel tape machine. I was introduced to Pro Tools 14 years ago when I moved to San Francisco, which was my first exposure to digital recording. As I started working at studios, people would teach me how to use it. I spent a long time perfecting my chops at Pro Tools, only to get back to a place where I felt that the sound imparted on a recording by analogue tools was more important than the convenience of digital recording. So my approach in the studio is to make it all as analogue possible. For that, I use my Neve 1272 and Telefunken V672, both solid state pre-amps.

How have you gone about accumulating knowledge about analogue gear and choosing pieces for your studio?

I started getting into the studio world in San Francisco in 2005. I had a job helping to co-managing a studio that's been here a long time, called Coast Recorders, which was built by Bill Putnam. It's now closing, unfortunately, but it was one of the last rooms Putnam built that was still in existence. No Doubt did their first album there, and John Coldtrane recorded there too. There was a great book that I read which came out when I started working there called "If These Halls Could Talk", which is all about Bay Areas studios and musicians, like Sly And The Family Stone, The Grateful Dead and Tower of Power, who helped define the sound of San Francisco music in the 60s and 70s. The book gets into specifics about recording gear, and I was able to take that knowledge and experiment with the gear at Coast Recorders. We had a big Neve desk and a huge 16-track Studer A800, which I was able to A-B with Pro Tools recordings, which helped me compare the two. Following that, I started renting a studio by another a drummer and multi-instrumentalist  called Nino Moschella, who let me rent his studio on Sundays for 4 years. It's called Bird & Egg Studios, in  El Cerrito, California. That's where I started to really learn what I liked. He had some Neve 1272s that I fell in love with when I plugged my Fender Precision Bass into them. He also had some UA6176s and Telefunken V72, and I fell in love with them on drums.

What is it that you think is most responsible for giving your music that sound that it has? Is it more a recording thing or mix thing?

I'm all about capturing the right sound on the way in. I don't use a lot of plugins during the mix. A big component that's shaped my sound at home is the Universal Apollo interface. I did 2 years on the road as a keyboard player and lead singer for Mickey Hart, from The Grateful Dead, which allowed me to save up money to build my own studio. I was using a Focusrite Liquid Saffire interface, which was okay. Then the Apollo came out, and I heard a lot of good things about it. I bought it and immediately heard how it sounded different. The converters are incredible.

On the plugin end, UA makes great stuff. Their Studer and Ampex plugins are great. I use them on everything.

As someone who's such a big advocate for analogue recording chains, to what extent do you incorporate the digital side of things into your process?

A lot of new technology is useful in that it allows me to move quicker, which helps creativity. I like the iPad because of it's Animoog app. If you understand what the sonic differences are between the emulation and the real synth, you can run the Animoog through analogue gear and get it to sound pretty close to the real thing. I've fooled a lot of people, haha. I use the Novation BassStation to control my Animoog and other synths through MIDI.

With the Animoog, I've found that it helps to use the iPad on a dock, as it allows you to bypass the headphone output on the iPad, and lets you use a quarter-inch output instead. All headphone jacks Apple outputs compress their audio, which has  a huge impact to the sound, and I'd prefer to skip that. The dock also allows you interface via MIDI, and mine offers I/O options too.

Do have the same analogue mentality when it comes to synths?

The only 2 synths I have are the Novation BassStation and Juno 106. My Nord Electro 3 is digital. But Nords are the best at emulating electro-mechanic keyboards like the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer, in my opinion. Just like the iPad, if you run the Nord through the right analog gear, you can make it sound real. I've fooled a lot of people into thinking I had a real organ at home, using the Nord.

What about drum machines?

I love them. They give you a different feel. I use the iPad FunkBox for that. It's an emulation of vintage analog drum machines, from the 808 to Linndrums. I wouldn't be able to rely on only that though, as I'm a drummer, but it's impossible to make real drums sound like sampled drums. Real drum playing comes with the resonances of the drum heads and different tonalities that bleed into each other, and are altered during the mix. With a drum sample, it's one single shot of all of that, which has been mixed and mastered. So I'll use samples to enhance single elements like kicks or snares, which leads to me combining real drums with samples. After all, you can't recreate the grooves of cymbals and hi-hats with a drum machine, so I'll do that on real drums. I don't quantize things on drum machines either, to make it feel more human. I got that from studying J Dilla, who's my favorite beatmaker, along with people like Q-Tip and Madlib.

It was listening to "Voodoo" by D'Angelo that things changed for me in terms of making beats. I didn't know that people could make records with real instruments and have it sound like that. His album had the feel of a hip-hop record, but it was human performances. That record made me realize that it's possible to connect the funk and RnB grooves or urban music with uplifting harmonies and melodies. There are only a few artists like Steve Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire who were able to do that.


Let's keep talking beat-making then. Your "Otis McDonald" persona seems to be geared toward that type of music. How did "Otis McDonald"come about?

I was commissioned by Youtube last year to write and record music for their Royalty-Free Audio Library. Initially they offered me a contract for 10 songs, with a set fee. I'd deliver the songs, and retain the credit, but they'd get full ownership. That can be intimidating for some musicians, because you don't want to give away your best music, but I felt that if I approached things from that standpoint, then I'd be telling myself that I couldn't make anything better in the future. So I agreed.

I gave them 10 tracks under the name "Joe Bagale", and they came back saying "We love your stuff! Would you be interested in producing 30 additional songs for our hip-hop library?" I said, "sure". However, my favorite beat-makers use samples, and I couldn't sample anything for this library. So I got into the habit of waking up in the morning, and writing 30 seconds of music, playing all the instruments and making it sound like an old soul record, all within 45 minutes. Then I'd put tape hiss all over it, using the Ampex ATR102 and Izotope Vinyl plugin, putting both on the master buss. I'd set the wobbliness and wow-flutter to make it sound old, and mess around with EQing it. Then I'd bounce the music as a two-track, and import it into PropellerHead's Recycle, where I'd slice it up across my Novation BassStation keys. Then I'd edit things like pitch and length in Reason, and treat the sample as a new piece of music and trigger sounds to make a new beat. Then I'll use Rewire in record it all into whilst running all the sounds through the UA Apollo and UA plugins.

The Youtube contract was for 30 songs in 3 months, meaning I had to do 10 songs a month. It forces you to move very quickly, and you learn trust your instincts.
Making my own samples was really fun, as it allowed me to marry songwriting with beat-making. As a result, I think the Otis McDonald stuff is some of my best material.

Tell me about your solo albums. I like them both. What were the recording process like for each of them?

Most of that was done at Coast Recorders, though it started at home. I was 20, and started making demos in Pro Tools. I then met the guy who owned Coast Recorders, and played him the demos. He really liked it, and offered me a place in his house in Oakland, since I was looking for a place to live at the time. He had a wonderful home studio there, with analogue gear and a Pro Tools HD rig. I would do the initial tracking at Coast, and played all the instruments on it, except the horns. I'd write the horn parts myself, then bring in a horn section to the studio and conduct from the control room. I studied music theory early on, which helps with communicating with people during that sort of thing.

A lot of the sound of my first album had to do with the co-producer, Ben Yonis,  as well as the sound of the room we recorded in. The mixing engineer was from New York, Hernan Santiago, who was wonderful.

On the 2nd album, "Yesterday Once Gain", things were much more self-produced. A lot of it was done at Bird & Egg Studios, which has a completely different sounding room; it's very reverberant. I mixed it on my own too. So it features more of a personal sound.

The Otis Mcdonald sound is probably the most reflective of my sound, since it was all done at home using my own gear.

One final question that I've had on my mind for a while: how did the video for Scarlett Fire come about? It looks really cool!

Thanks. I've always wanted to make animated videos, but coldn't afford to hire an animator. But then I discovered a program called Studio Artist. It allows you to animate on top of film. So I came across a video of someone dancing on Youtube. I downloaded it and animated it into Studio Artist, and then brought it into Final Cut to add FXs like letter and camera wobbling. It came out really well.

SamInterview: Producer – Joe Bagale/Otis McDonald