Joe Bagale, also known as Otis McDonald, is a San Francisco-based artist whose music has gained significant traction on Youtube. Despite having a home studio setup like so many others, he’s been able to produce some noteworthy music that belies his studio setup. I was compelled to reach out for an interview after hearing the royalty-free music he created for YouTube, and we ended up talking about his background, his studio and some of the tracks.
– Hi Joe. Thanks for talking to me. Can I start by asking about your musical beginnings?
Sure. My father was a music teacher, and since I’m the youngest of three boys who all play music, it allowed me to absorb a lot from them. I started playing drums when I was about seven. At age ten I started on the trombone and taught myself guitar and bass. Around twelve I started messing around with the piano and by thirteen I was in my first band. So I’m a multi-instrumentalist who loved playing different things, but drums is what I went to college for.
– When I listen to your stuff, I hear a throwback 60s/70s vibe. How are you able to retain these sensibilities when many of your peers seem to have abandoned them?
I was hip to records at a very young age. Hip-hop was a big thing when I was a kid in the late 80s and people were still spinning vinyl. Then I got introduced to The Beatles at age twelve. Their Anthology was being aired on national TV and my family would sit around and watch it; I got hooked by these working class guys who had put out so much music in just a seven-year span. That drew me to vinyl albums, which my dad had in his vinyl collection. He made me alphabetize his records as a part of my chores, which introduced me to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Yes, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin. I’ve never thought any of today’s music was as 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 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 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 today’s pop and hip-hop 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 Stevie Wonder and “The White Album” by The Beatles just get better every time you hear them.
– I’ve seen flashes of what your studio looks like on your YouTube channel. You seem to be fond of analog gear. Has that always been the case?
Yes it has. We always had a home studio with instruments and reel-to-reel tape when I was a kid. I was introduced to Pro Tools fourteen years ago when I moved to San Francisco, and it was my first exposure to digital recording. I spent a long time building my skills with Pro Tools, but got to a point where I felt the sound of analog gear outweighed the convenience of digital tools. So my studio approach is to make everything as analog as possible. For that, I use my Neve 1272 and Telefunken V672 as my solid state pre-amps.
– How have you accumulated so much knowledge about analog gear? Did you work in a studio?
Yes, I did. I got involved with the San Francisco studio world in 2005 and co-managed a studio called Coast Recorders, which was built by Bill Putnam. It’s unfortunately closing, but was one of the last rooms Putnam built. No Doubt did their first album there and John Coltrane recorded there too. There’s a great book called “If These Halls Could Talk” about Bay Area studios and musicians who defined the sound of San Francisco in the 60s and 70s, like Sly And The Family Stone, The Grateful Dead and Tower of Power. The book gets into specifics about recording gear, so I used that to experiment with gear at Coast Recorders. We had a big Neve desk and a huge 16-track Studer A800 that I was able to A-B with Pro Tools to compare the two. Following that, I rented a studio owned by another drummer and multi-instrumentalist called Nino Moschella. He let me rent Bird & Egg Studios in El Cerrito on Sundays for four years. 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 those on drums.
– What’s most responsible for giving your music its sound? Is it a recording thing or mix thing?
I’m all about capturing the right sound on the way in, so I don’t use a lot of plugins during the mix. A big component that’s shaped my sound is the Universal Apollo interface. I did two 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 is an okay unit, but then the Apollo came out, and I found the converters to be incredible. So that’s what I currently use.
UA makes great stuff on the plugin end too. Their Studer and Ampex plugins are great, and I use them on everything.
– 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 the Animoog app. If you understand what the sonic differences are between the emulation and the real synth, you can run the Animoog through analog gear and get it to sound pretty close to the real thing. I’ve fooled a lot of people (laughs). I’ve found that it helps to use the iPad on a dock since it allows you to bypass the headphone output to use a quarter-inch output instead. All Apple headphone jacks will compress the audio, and that impacts the sound in a way I’d prefer to skip. The dock offers I/O options too, and also allows for MIDI control via my Novation BassStation.
– Do you have the same analog mentality when it comes to synths?
My only two synths 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. 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 played a real organ when it was really the Nord.
– What about drum machines?
I use the iPad FunkBox a lot. It’s an emulation of vintage analog drum machines like the 808 and Linndrum. I don’t overly rely on them since I can play real drums, but it’s impossible to make real drums sound like sampled drums. Real drum playing involves the resonances of the drum heads and different tonalities bleeding into each other, whereas a drum sample is a single shot of all that which has been mixed and mastered. So I’ll combine samples with real drums to enhance the kick or snare. You can’t recreate the grooves of cymbals and hi-hats with a drum machine, so I’ll do that on real drums. To make the groove feel more human, I don’t quantize things on drum machines either. I got that from studying J Dilla, who’s my favorite beatmaker, along with people like Q-Tip and Madlib.
D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” changed things for me in terms of making beats. I didn’t know 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 came from human performances. That’s when I realized it was possible to combine funk and RnB grooves with uplifting harmonies and melodies. There’s only a few artists like Steve Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire who were able to do that.
– 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 music for their royalty-free audio library. They initially offered me a contract for ten songs with a set fee, so I’d retain the credit but relinquish ownership. That can be intimidating for some musicians because they don’t want to give away their best music, but having that mindset would imply I couldn’t make anything better in the future, so I took the deal. I gave them ten tracks under my real name and they came back saying, “We love your stuff! Would you be interested in producing 30 additional songs for our hip-hop library? “, which I agreed to do. I couldn’t sample anything for that library, so I’d wake up in the morning and spend 45 minutes writing 30 seconds of music where I played all the instruments and made it sound like an old soul record. Then I’d put tape hiss on it by putting the Ampex ATR102 and Izotope Vinyl on the master buss. I’d set the wobbliness and wow-flutter to make it sound old and also EQ’d 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. I’d edit things like pitch and length in Reason and treat the sample as a new piece of music to make a beat from.
The Youtube contract was for 30 songs in three months, meaning I had to do ten songs a month. It forces you to move very quickly and you learn to 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.
– Let’s talk about your Joe Bagale solo albums. What was the recording process like for each of them?
Most of that was done at Coast Recorders when I was 20, though it started with me making demos in Pro Tools at home that I later played for the owner of Coast Recorders. He liked them, and since I was looking for somewhere to live at the time, he offered me a place at his house in Oakland. He had a wonderful home studio with analog gear and a Pro Tools HD rig, so I did tracking at Coast and played all the instruments except the horns. I’d write the parts and bring in a horn section that I conducted from the control room. I studied music theory early on, which helps with communicating during that sort of thing.
The sound of my first album had a lot to do with the co-producer, Ben Yonas, as well as the sound of the room we recorded in. The mixing engineer, Hernan Santiago, was from New York, and he was great too.
– What about the second album?
On the second album, “Yesterday Once Again“, things were much more self-produced. A lot of it was done at Bird & Egg Studios, which has a completely different room that’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 style since it was all done at home using my own gear.
– Thanks for talking to me Joe. It’s been great. One final question: how did the video for “Scarlet Fire” come about?
I’ve always wanted to make animated videos but couldn’t afford to hire an animator, so I was lucky to discover a program called Studio Artist that lets you animate on top of film. When I later saw a video of someone dancing on YouTube, I downloaded it and did the animation in Studio Artist. Then I brought it into Final Cut to add FXs like letter and camera wobbling. It came out really well.