Audeze chats with bassist and composer Michael Formanek

Michael Formanek is a bassist and composer who most often, but not always, lives in the world of acoustic, improvisational music. His main instrumental voice is best expressed on the double bass, and he uses the electric bass and electronic effects when the spirit moves and inspires him to venture in those directions.

Michael has been part of numerous recordings since the mid-1970s, many under his own name since around 1990. He has made two solo bass recordings, Am I Bothering You (Screwgun 1998) and Imperfect Measures (Intakt 2021), a highly acclaimed large ensemble recording The Distance (ECM 2016), and many different groupings in-between. He is part of the cooperative group Thumbscrew, with guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, who will release their seventh recording as a group, Multicolored Midnight in late 2022, their tenth anniversary as a working band. His current project is the Michael Formanek Drome Trio, who released their first recording Were We Where We Were, in March 2022 on Circular File Records.

 Michael Formanek and his Audeze LCD-X headphones

"After having worked on a few different projects now with my Audeze LCD-Xs I’ve come to completely rely on them... to really trust them before finalizing or signing off on a new or revised mix or master." - Michael Formanek
Here's our talk with Michael:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

The Distance, my big band recording on ECM is very special to me. David Torn mixed it and really captured the sound and feeling I was going for with that music. I’m very proud of the duo recording I made with my son, saxophonist and clarinetist Peter Formanek, titled Dyads, that was released on Out Of Your Head in 2021. My latest release, Were We Where We Were is also very exciting to me. It was mastered by Alex DeTurk for CD and vinyl and really sounds amazing!

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

I’m almost always the bassist. I’m often a composer and/or arranger. I’m sometimes the producer. I work on other people’s projects and usually have a couple of my own to work on at any given time. I started to learn more about mixing and digital editing during 2020, since there was time and not too much distraction. I’s a slow process for me but I have been able to do a little bit of work in Pro Tools, usually before or after I hand it off to the professionals. In all these capacities I need to do a lot of close and detailed listening.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I grew in the San Francisco Bay Area and started to get into playing music at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. It was a very fertile music environment there at that time, and obviously in music generally. Rock, Blues, Soul, and then eventually more and more Jazz. I tended to like heavier, more stretched out, improvisation centered music, like Jimi Hendrix and Cream at the time. Beatles and Stones, of course, Led Zeppelin for sure. Some of the earlier electric Jazz like Mahavishnu, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, Weather Report, etc. Then just kept moving more in an acoustic jazz and improvisational music direction.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane were all very important influences. There were so many moments over the years that turned out to be important after the fact, but often I was too stubborn or set in my ways to realize it. Staying open to new or alternative possibilities is really important to me.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

I’ve made many recordings with other artists where I felt I could have done more to make sure to get my sound and my musical voice onto the final recording. At some point I learned when I needed to relinquish some control, and when to dig my heels in. This started to happen in the early 1990s and I’ve gotten better at it over the years. I still get frustrated even now on occasion but much less than before. There are many recordings I made in the 1980s that I can’t even listen to without cringing, but fortunately not so many after that.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

Yes, my Jean Auray double bass, built for me by the master luthier in 2011. The only other piece of gear I bring with me to recording sessions, beside my Rodney Mohr French bass bow, is my Schoeps CMC641 Set Colette Series Supercardioid Microphone. My favorite mic, period, is a Neumann U47 or U47FET large diaphragm condenser mic. I don’t own one, but try and record in studios with great mic collections that would have at least one.  Sometimes I use some effects pedals on either my double bass or electric bass when I play it, made by Red Panda. My favorite is the Red Panda Particle V2 Granular Delay Pedal combined with a Moog EP3 Expression Pedal. I use those on the double bass on the new Thumbscrew recording Multicolored Midnight that will be out later in 2022.  

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

It’s far too much of a cliché, I know, but whatever you do should excite you and keep you engaged. You shouldn’t be afraid to make changes when you’re interests shift in different directions, or just to keep from getting too comfortable with anything you do.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I’ve been working with headphones in the studio for my entire music career, now well over forty years. I use them in production work less consistently since I haven’t had headphones that I’ve really liked in a very long time, maybe ever before now.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

After having worked on a few different projects now with my Audeze LCD-Xs I’ve come to completely rely on them at several points along the way. Most importantly though I’ve come to really trust them before finalizing or signing off on a new or revised mix or master. They’re so accurate that they help me make a completely honest assessment of how a recording really sounds. I use them at all stages of the process but that’s where I find them to be most invaluable. They are also just a pleasure to listen to any music on, but as far as how they’ve changed how I work that is it. I have yet to use them in a studio recording session but am looking forward to. I often record with my bass in a booth and rely heavily on the headphone mix I get, or dial up for myself.

Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

Most recently I’ve been working on a recording with the brilliant pianist and improviser Angelica Sanchez, in a trio with myself on bass and the great Billy Hart on drums. It was recorded by Maureen Sickler at the legendary Van Gelder Studio in Englewood, New Jersey. The music is very open and is also very dense at times, and it’s always a challenge to get the instruments balanced so that the music comes across very full and with a lot of presence, but without sacrificing some of the detail in certain registers. This is especially true with the acoustic bass... It’s always important to me to have a big, full, and rich sound, but the color and attack of each note should be clear and have its own place in the sonic spectrum of the music. With different instruments occupying the same place and the same register in the music sometimes can be very tricky to balance. Ryan Streber, who I know also uses Audeze headphones, is a brilliant engineer and musician and has incredible ears, is mixing the record. My only role is an advisory one to Angelica. I think the mix is almost there now and I know that for me using my Audeze LCD-Xs have been very important in this capacity. I’ve also been going through several older recordings that I’m thinking of releasing and some recent tour recordings to add to my Bandcamp pages. Again, I feel that these headphones will help me make more informed decisions about the viability of these mostly live performance documents.