Audeze interviews drummer, composer and producer Caleb Dolister

October 31, 2023

Caleb Dolister is a drummer and composer experienced with engineering and production, known for work with The Kandinsky EffectOddAtlas, and saxophonist/producer Warren Walker, as well as multiple contributions to projects released with Dan Rosenboom and the creative-minded Orenda Records. His most recent solo project release, Daily Thumbprint Collection, was recorded over the span of a decade and included over 20 musicians recorded in different settings from around the country. Caleb is also a website developer and consultant.

Caleb Dolister in the studio with his Audeze LCD-X headphones
 "The LCD-X provide a level of consistency and trust that I have not encountered before."  - Caleb Dolister
Here's our chat with Caleb:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of? 

Musically, the album Pax 6 with The Kandinsky Effect will always hold a special place. With most jazz-rooted music, the approach is very personal. Usually, that is what the composers want; I hire people for their sound, or people hire me for my sound and my approach. With this album, we managed to bypass our “jazz selves” and identify more as a group. The result is much more patient and mature, and the arc has these cool dark landscape undertones. While this could suggest one too many nights on tour together guarding gear in cheap hostels throughout Europe, I think it says a bit more. It really does take years for that kind of chemistry to grow, regardless of genre, and that’s unique to find in the jazz genre where musicians tend to jump on projects for one album and then move on to another.

Daily Thumbprint Collection is also worth mentioning. The project differs from jazz in that it’s very much through-composed and has never been for live performance. I have (3) albums released in the series and generally approach composition by using synths or sequences and then recording live drums. The most recent release, The Wandering, was an evolution of that model. The goal was to write a fully orchestrated album and travel around the country to record and eat with exceptional musicians. I estimated a few years, but it took from 2009-2020 to complete. The entire album was tracked one instrument at a time, using cheap headphones and a few mics (tight budget - very indie). Everyone that played on it did an exceptional job, but the audio quality was far from perfect and needed years of work with hundreds of tracks to sift through. I burned out 3-times trying to finish it before eventually crossing the finish line. I am certainly proud of the result, and the experience was once in a lifetime.

Another achievement was writing a guest article for the F5 & NGINX tech blog. The company is primarily a networking platform producing software for high-performance HTTP/IMAP/PROXY servers. In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, musicians sparked a keen interest in jamming remotely but found latency caused all sorts of problems. All of my social feeds seemed to reflect a population of dissatisfied musicians and questions about their internet speeds. With my knowledge in tech, I channeled a blog post so musicians could learn more about network and acoustic latency and posted it to Medium. The post got some attention thanks to friends and shares. Eventually, I was invited to write a revised article for NGINX, but this time from the perspective of explaining how latency affects musicians to more of a tech/network/server audience. It’s amazing how quick 30ms feels until it’s in your headphones. 

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

Like anyone with multiple projects, it varies. First and foremost, I am a drummer. Usually, I am performing, but not always. Sometimes I also help with production, engineering, feedback, etc. When it comes to a new project, my first goal is to digest the idea and understand the creative basis and direction. Once I get it, I look for ways to push the project forward, help it grow, streamline any parts that might cause issues, and look for unique skills in the other people involved. I find that everyone has a different skill set, so I also look for ways to identify where I should help or where it’s more helpful for me to be hands-off.

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

My parents are both musicians. Our family had a cover band in our small town near Lake Tahoe, CA. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to grow up playing drums for weddings, local events, ski resorts, etc. I was sitting in regularly by the time I was eight years old and eventually playing full gigs. As I got better at drums, I gravitated towards more physical, technical music, and in middle school started a loud punk/thrash band. I was always very DIY. My parents had equipment at home so I rigged our PA into a tape machine to start recording tapes for our friends. I also taught myself to code websites; I thought having a website would help my adolescent punk band get famous (we definitely did not, but now I have another skill set). Eventually, I got into jazz and improvisation towards the end of high school and went to college to study music. After college, I moved to Nashville, moonlighted with projects in Los Angeles, and ended up in New York for almost a decade. I’m currently living in the Bay Area while working on a follow-up to my solo project and traveling for new musical projects.

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

My biggest influences have always been bandmates (including my parents) and musicians in the local community. I learned so much from my young punk band, and later the jazz/fusion projects we had in college. The larger-Tahoe area also had a wealth of good players and lots of gig opportunities, and those relationships were invaluable. I can list hundreds of well-known bands and albums which I've listened to relentlessly, but I believe being challenged and learning from musicians in person has made the biggest impact. 

I do have a quick story that has always stuck with me. I was maybe 9-10 years old and playing a gig outdoors with my parents. We had no drum mics, just a small PA. At one point, I must have been tired and unable to keep up. My dad was playing bass and likely exhausted from carrying the band through each song. He started to shout "SNARE!" on each backbeat and pushed me to get a clean crack out of the drum. I realized not only that I was dragging, but also getting lost in the overall sound. It was probably the first time that I understood the importance of thinking about the sound of the band from the audience perspective. What did they hear? What was missing? It was a poignant moment and has stayed with me for life. Now, I’m always thinking about what the audience hears, not what I can do - or how fast can my drum fill be before the next section. If I ever feel tired at a gig, or see the momentum of a song dropping, I can hear in my head “SNARE! … SNARE! … SNARE! …” and I remeber to try and improve the entire sound of the group.

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?

While recording Daily Thumbprint Collection, The Wandering, I traveled around the country to record musicians. Looking back, it was just about the most eye-opening experience I can imagine. I was also on a tight budget; I had only a laptop, a cheap 8-channel USB interface, a few mics, and some cheap open-backed headphones. And the recording spaces were picked out of convenience and were usually untreated.

Early in the project, I traveled to San Francisco to record two of my friends who were string players. I thought we would track at one of their homes, but as S.F. is expensive, everyone had loud roommates or lived across a traffic-ridden town. We got stuck looking for another location. We decided to head towards a "practice space" used by one of the violists during off-hours & weekends. To my surprise, the practice space was actually a woodshop located in an industrial district. The shop was full of tools, boards, and scrap wood. It also had concrete floors, thinner street-facing windows, high ceilings, and sawdust everywhere. As a live space, it sounded okay, and it was our only option, so we went with it. I set up my interface and laptop on a large wooden worktable with a giant saw mounted in the middle, I pulled out my charts, and we just started to record.

Unfortunately, my cheap headphones did not reveal how much noise ended up in the recordings. I could hear some background sounds but assumed I could edit those out. I only realized the impact years later when I tracked a cellist in another intreated space and discovered both recordings had different frequencies of white noise. The album does use these tracks (I did not supplement/replace them with samples), but it required a lot of damage control, edits, and adjustments.

I wouldn't approach this recording the same today. For starters, I now completely understand the importance of clean sources and have a decent-sounding tracking room that would provide a cohesive sound. But secondly, most musicians now have home interfaces and can track remotely. In 2010, not as many people knew their way around a DAW and mic setup. Today, the same album would likely become a hybrid project with in-person and remote sessions. It would be easier to mix, but it wouldn't be the same experience. If I did have to do the album again the same way (traveling around to remote record), I would use better headphones, make better room choices, and ultimately save years of work.

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

Easily, the best tool in my studio is a drum key. I’ve been playing for over 30 years, but I am still learning new things about tuning and how mic placements can further that sound.

As a drummer, the best thing about having a studio might be the ability to experiment. I spend hours geeking out different ways to tune and mic drums before tracking. If it sounds wimpy, I can always move the mic, retune, change heads, or adjust the angle and re-record. That luxury doesn't occur on someone else's time, or when you have to finish an album in a few days. So after many years of focusing on my live sound, I am now getting to refine my studio sound. 

As a practice, I try to keep a streamlined setup in my studio. This makes it much easier to record drums for other projects. My mics sound great for my drums. I have nice, clean preamps, and I can spend time working on the sound of the drum itself. That means plugins or outboard gear become an optional instrument for color and creative production rather than a bandaid. 

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

As a clinician, I often advise kids and younger players not to get stuck doing only one thing. Learning the instrument is a foundation, but what you bring to a project is much more involved. Working to maintain physical and mental health, practicing strong work ethics, and having versatility with additional skills will always add to your value. The days of being a blue-collar musician where you can show up, play, and then go home are numbered. You have to be able to contribute in other ways. Learn your way around a studio. Learn how to create artwork, videos, and websites, print t-shirts, or grant writing for public funding. Practice being personable and having good people skills. And further, work in your community and take care of the small venues that book live music; and make an effort to see live music performed by your peers. Nobody can do it all, but collectively, these are some of the non-instrument skills that musical communities and projects need in order to succeed.

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

I learned the hard way that while recording in the field, your headphones are your best tool to check your sources. Reliable and accurate headphones will save you hours, days, or years of work.

Looking ahead, Warren Walker and I have a new project using modular synth instruments, saxophone, and live drums. There are no backing tracks, and all parts are live. My role involves monitoring his mix and playing drums while also applying drum filters in real-time to my outputs. The live mix is sent as two stereo outputs for the front of the house. Without reliable headphones, this project would be a disaster. Thankfully, we have that covered.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

I’m confidently moving forward with utilizing the LCD-X in my routine workflow. I've spent years recording in live situations, sometimes in live venues, sometimes in remote impromptu studio sessions. While not always ideal, I have to check references, input quality, and adjust mixes outside of my studio from time to time. The LCD-X provide a level of consistency and trust that I have not encountered before. I’ve consistently found that when I feel good about the quality of sound or mix in the LCD-X, it quickly translates to my monitors and other reference speakers. Recently, I have been focused on some session work, including tracking drums for a dynamic range of projects; I’m changing tunings, heads, mic placement, dynamic levels, and styles. In all cases, the LCD-X have become a baseline reference point. I can see these headphones being a compliment to my studio and tracking processes for years to come.

Caleb Dolister's Audeze LCD-X headphones