Audeze interviews composer, producer and engineer Murat Çolak
January 06, 2023
Audeze interviews composer, producer and engineer Murat Çolak
Murat Çolak is an Eskişehir-born composer, producer, and audio engineer based in Manhattan. His compositional work is immersive and luxe, it finds its home in the spirituality and poise of Turkish art music and in the hazy, hypnotic coils of techno and trance. As an engineer, Murat specializes in contemporary classical / electroacoustic music and uses this highly technical skillset to bring a unique and innovative sound to electronic dance music, rap, and rock.
Murat has collaborated extensively with some of contemporary music's most prominent exponents worldwide, artists like International Contemporary Ensemble, Wet Ink, Ensemble Dal Niente, Distractfold, JACK Quartet, No Hay Banda, Ensemble Vertixe Sonora, Ensemble Surplus, Meitar Ensemble, Scenatet and others. His compositions have been presented by the BBC Radio 3, MATA Festival, New Music USA, the Yaddo Corporation, Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Jerome Foundation, Akademie Schloss Solitude, ISCM World New Music Days, Frequency Series Festival Chicago, Sonic Matter Festival Zürich, and Festival of New American Music among others. His engineering work can be heard on Edition Wandelweiser, New Focus, NEOS, Carrier, Whited Sepulcher, Sideband, Halocline Trance, and on his progressive electronic music label GERYON.
Murat received his doctorate in composition from Boston University, and he holds a masters from Istanbul Technical University's Centre for Advanced Studies in Music (MIAM). He’s taught music technology, production, and composition at New England Conservatory, Montclair State University, Kaufman Music Center and the New York Philharmonic, and has given lectures and masterclasses at Harvard University, UC Berkeley, Columbia University, Simon Fraser University and others.
"...the listening experience the LCD-X offers is unparalleled. So much that I like to think of it as a musical instrument I use while I compose, produce, mix, and master." - Murat Çolak
Here's our talk with Murat:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?
Sure thing! One of them would be the “object/animal” LP by the Chicago-based contemporary music group Ensemble Dal Niente. I was part of this project as a composer and mixing engineer for my electroacoustic piece “Swan” I wrote in 2017, and the mastering engineer for the whole record. It is a piece that has a special place in my heart, and it’s not easy to do technical work on a project that is this personal. This is an album of meticulously notated concert music that blurs the lines between classical and pop(ular) music. The CD has two other stunning pieces in it by composers LJ White and Jeff Parker. It was quite challenging to make these very different sounding pieces into one coherent record that is a convincing musical journey from start to finish, but I’m very happy with the result.
I’m also proud of the mastering work I did on fluatist Laura Cock’s “field anatomies”, and bassoonist and composer Joy Guidry’s “Radical Acceptance.” They are similar projects in the sense that they represent very diverse sound worlds that employ unusual playing techniques, live signal processing and fixed media. Both are truly special records, and they received very positive and insightful reviews. As well as fellow Turkish composer Eren Gümrükçüoglu’s portrait CD “Pareidolia”, which I mastered: An electroacoustic art music record full of virtuosic compositions and performances.
There are two upcoming albums that I’d like the readers to definitely look out for: Artist/engineer Marek Poliks’ AI-generated contemporary classical project “Archon” —the fruition of a machine learning research he and violinist Roberto Alonso Trillo pursued at Hong Kong Baptist University, and Colombian composer Camilo Mendez’s portrait CD “Peripheral Spaces” with Ensemble Vertixe Sonora. I’ve mastered both records and they’ll be out early 2023 on NEOS. I promise, you’ll hear some quite unusual, cutting edge music in these albums, and I’m really satisfied with the work I’ve done on them.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?
These days I am either the composer or the mastering engineer. Composer because that’s my artistic practice as a musician; mastering engineer because that’s my main focus as an audio engineer, and artists that want to work with me usually know that.
I quite often work as a mixer or a recordist, too, and I absolutely love doing both. There are also artists I work with as a producer / executive producer, mostly under the roof of my label Geryon.
How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?
I started obsessively listening to music around four or five years old. My parents had a great record collection through which I got exposed to almost everything: Classical, RnB, Turkish folk and pop, jazz, disco, early hip-hop, Soviet choruses, Portuguese fado… you name it. One day, my father brought in a Casio keyboard for my sister. She wasn’t really interested, so I grabbed it. I was playing melodies I heard or making new ones with it, figuring out famous bass-lines and playing them on top of its crappy drum machine. It wasn’t until I was 11, however, when I grabbed the guitar and started taking music lessons. I kept listening to and playing rock, extreme metal, fusion, funk, and jazz obsessively throughout middle and high-school. During my college years in Istanbul, I was introduced to electronic dance music and club culture, and I started producing electronic music as a hobby. I went to college for advertising, and studying music, pursuing a career in it was not an option for me. Having been born and raised in a middle class home in Turkey, my family didn’t allow me to make music professionally because they believed I wouldn’t be able to survive financially. So, I had to pick up a “decent” job that pays the bills - classic middle class Turkish millennial syndrome (I don’t know how it is now). Though, I always somehow studied music myself or with a private teacher. I started reading music early on and I knew my theory pretty well. When I was 25, I finally took the chance and got accepted to a great masters program to study composition at Istanbul Technical University’s Centre for Advanced Studies in Music (MIAM). It was truly a dream come true, After finishing that, I was accepted to a doctoral program in music composition and theory at Boston University with scholarship.
Throughout grad school, my mentors (primarily Pieter Snapper and Joshua Fineberg) had been multi-faceted musicians who were extremely well-versed in the artistic, philosophical, and technological sides of music making. I was lucky, and what I learned from them, along with my own musical past, paved my career path.
Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?
I am the only musician in the entire family. Though, my parents would be the biggest influencing factor. My father, for instance, who owned the record collection that made me fall in love with so many different styles of music, and who never really encouraged (or allowed) me to pursue music professionally at the same time. I could’ve started my formal training in college instead of grad school, and that would give me more time to immerse myself and formally advance in music. And my mother, who bought me my first guitar when I was 11, encouraged me to pursue the masters program at MIAM, and was a great support before and during grad school. (Moms rule!)
I lived in Istanbul for ten years and I was always part of a musical community. I learned so much from the people in the scene there. I also met one of my first serious mentors, jazz guitarist Donovan Mixon, in Istanbul, and he taught me a lot of things I still use today, everyday. The following years in MIAM’s vibrant environment where you took advanced classes and collaborated with engineers, sound designers, performers, and ethnomusicologists were extremely nourishing and eye-opening. Finally, spending five years in Boston among the BU and the Harvard community really changed my perspective on music. I was among quite formidable artists—established and up-and-coming—all the time. My time there taught me so much about music, aesthetics, and the science behind music making.
Shortly, me starting music and doing what I do today has been a very slow, gradual, at times rough yet very rewarding process that started in my hometown, Eskisehir. About 23 years after my mom bought me that guitar, I moved to New York City with my spouse Diana Rodriguez who is also a fantastic composer. New York is entirely another story, and a rather new one for me. Let's talk about that at the end of my first ten years here ;)
Some of my musical heroes that shaped my ears, voice, and philosophy would be Rick Rubin, Quincy Jones, Igor Stravinsky, Miles Davis, early Opeth, Stanley Clarke, Burhan Öçal, Dr. Dre, Betty Davis, early Daft Punk, Kanye West, Sezen Aksu, Herbert von Karajan, Death, Sade, Richie Hawtin, Bob Rock, Rod Modell, Parliament-Funkadelic, Larry Levan, Dark Throne, Helmut Lachenmann, Onno Tunç, Larry Heard, Kenny Dixon Jr., Steve Albini, Diana Ross, George Michael, Wes Montgomery, early Ulver, Rihanna… the list goes on. It’s a very, very eclectic list of people who were not only great musicians but who also carved out their own spaces with unique aesthetic visions. I’m not even mentioning a lot of names who are active today.
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?
In the early days of my music production journey, I used to think of composition, recording, mixing and mastering to be all completely distinct and esoteric processes. I used to have a hard time connecting all of these activities conceptually, and my first few tries in mixing or mastering were a bit frustrating since despite the hours of research and practice I was putting in, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. I was stuck within the self-referentiality of these seemingly different disciplines. It wasn’t until I decided to expand my compositional practice by incorporating a lot of electronic elements, popular music influences and production techniques in it. Composing an evening-length piece, for instance, with classical instruments, synthesizers and electronics teaches you a lot - about composition and production, live sound and its capture, and the post-production process. That was a revelation for me and it connected everything.
The way I approach things today is purely from a musicians’ perspective. I try to integrate all the knowledge I’ve accumulated through the years regardless of the role I play. For me, the definitive version of a piece of music is its recording rather than a live version. So, although I strongly believe some of these processes should be handled by different specialists in highly professional workflows, I see recording, mixing, and mastering to be parts of the compositional process at large. I think in terms of pitch, rhythm, timbre, dynamics, space, texture, and form (what brings all these aspects together in the temporal continuum) when I work as an engineer. I found that to be the only way for me to create convincing records.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
There are several. My guitar made by the great luthier Ekrem Ôzkarpat in Istanbul. I don’t really practice anymore but whenever I feel like playing some music, or trying some harmonies for something I’m writing, it’s what I turn to. It has a beautifully balanced, warm sound. It’s one of those instruments that make you play and come up with new material. Some of the essential electronic gear would be my Metric Halo sound cards (they’re the backbone of almost everything I do), my Roger Foote P3S ME Mastering Compressor (I’m in love with it since the first day - extremely versatile and deep unit. Still surprises me each time I reach out to it), and my Dangerous Music BAX EQ (my favorite way to open up a mix and shape transients very, very transparently - also, hell of a HPF!). When it comes to DSP, anything by Softube, MAAT Digital, FabFilter, Soundtoys, and DMG Audio. And, last but not least, my beloved Audeze LCD-X Cans which changed the way I hear music forever!
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?
A friend/colleague recently said “There are many different definitions of being a good musician.” They said it with regards to the editing work they were doing on a classical recording performed by a superstar pianist. “Editing can be boring but…” they said, and continued with the statement above. That sentence had really struck a chord with me.
Don’t get stuck with one definition of being a great musician, like playing an instrument at a virtuosic level, producing killer beats, becoming a top mixer etc. While all of those things are valid and extremely valuable, from my perspective, the musician’s life is a fluid one. It changes direction and evolves constantly, and there’s always, always something new to learn, a new destination to arrive and spend some time at. It is a beautiful, exciting life full of deep, genuine emotions and connections—connections you make with the most interesting people— and fascinating knowledge to absorb.
“Never stop learning”. That would be my advice in relation to what my friend suggested. You learn music, you learn life. You learn music, you learn the world around you and the people in it. You learn music, you learn yourself.
How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?
I’ve been working with headphones for about ten years now. I hadn’t heard about Audeze until late 2018, though. I had just moved to New York City then, and we had a tiny apartment. There were several mastering projects I had to finish and I was in the market for an exceptional pair of headphones for the job. During my research, I came across mastering engineer Ian Shepherd’s interview with Glenn Schick on his “Mastering Show.” I was so excited to see that Glenn was entirely remote and worked with his cans, Antelope Audio converter, and plugins by Plugin Alliance (I vividly remember these). That chat had most of the answers I needed including Audeze, about which Glenn talked very passionately. I wasn’t familiar with planar magnetic technology at the time. I read and watched a lot of positive reviews, some by mastering engineers, and I ordered my first pair of LCD-X’s.
When I received and wore them, I was convinced that it was a listening experience unto itself. I loved what I heard, but I also knew that it would take time for me to start using them on critical applications. Both the headphones and I opened up day by day and got used to each other. In a relatively short time, I found myself using the pair in every application—composing, synthesizing, beat-making, mixing, mastering…
In 2021, my friend (and former mentor) Pieter Snapper told me that the new batch of LCD-X’s are optimized for critical applications and sound even better. I wasn’t sure until I tried his cans, after which I immediately ordered a new pair. I was blown away by what I heard: Incredible transient response, immersive yet extremely balanced soundstage, and just the *right* frequency response. They also have a lovely, indescribable crispiness and warmth to them (that might be psychological. haha!)
I use my pair with Lavricables Ultimate Silver cables, and without any headphone correction software getting involved. Although I kept using them on any application you can use open-back headphones for, my favorite way to utilize them is monitoring while fine-tuning my mixes and masters. Depending on where I am, I drive them either with my Metric Halo ULN-8 mkIV, or Dangerous Source. It does a fantastic job with both, and I absolutely don’t hesitate to start and finish a project with them when I don’t have access to a pair of full-range speakers in an acoustically controlled room. What I do on them transfers to other systems without problems. They are an integral component to my QC process as well. I truly love 'em!
Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?
I just can’t wait to get tired of my LCD-X’s (not sure if it will ever happen) and try my next pair of headphones by Audeze (this will happen regardless).
How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?
Like I said above, for me, the listening experience the LCD-X offers is unparalleled. So much that I like to think of it as a musical instrument I use while I compose, produce, mix, and master. Like a cello or a guitar. You need to get to know it, practice it, and once it becomes an extension of your body and soul, it becomes a tool for you to decode, understand, and shape what you hear. It’s not just a pair of headphones, it’s a sonic world that I don’t want to leave anytime soon.
These days I’m working on a full production of an hour long string quartet with composer Timothy McCormack and JACK Quartet, producing violist Carrie Frey’s debut solo album, mastering some local reggaeton, electronic dance, hip-hop, hardcore and contemporary classical, mixing some great hyper-pop tunes and electronic jazz from Canada, producing dance-pop tunes for a Turkish artist, and composing the electronics of a brand new piece I’m creating with the International Contemporary Ensemble. The LCD-Xs are “instrumental” to all of these projects.