Joel Ma is a multi-talented artist, producer, songwriter and performer who has produced and written for some of the most recognised names in the music industry. Straddling the worlds of Indie dance, hiphop, pop, electronica and experimental art music, he has carved out a niche as a forward thinking artist on the forefront of sound.
"The Audeze LCD X have been nothing short of a god send!... I can travel and take my mixing work with me and feel secure knowing what I'm listening to translates." - Joel Ma
Here's our chat with Joel:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
Note: My favourite big name production credit is on the Madonna track called Veni Vidi Vici of which I have a staggering %0.2 writing credit.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?
When I’m working with other artists as a producer or mixer my main role is to be a sonic guide, when I’m working as a top liner or co-writer my main role is more like life coach, and when I’m working on my own music my main role is best described as shamanic sound wave passenger.
How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?
Both my parents were huge music lovers, my father with jazz and folk, my mother with Motown soul and music traditions from around the world. I started playing drums when I was 12 and quickly got involved in punk music like The Dead Kennedys and Fugazi, my sister introduced me to Parliament and Funkadelic and then somewhere around the end of high school I gravitated towards 90’s hiphop and experimental electronic artists like Aphex Twin and Square Pusher (anything on Warp records). My music tastes still remain eclectic and far reaching.
Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?
The discovery of synthesisers and samplers was a huge thing for me. Growing up in a single parent household meant I had a lot of spare time and I was hugely into video games and Sci Fi, discovering synths and particularly old analog synths was perfect for me.
These days, I have decent collection of old gear with some of the crown jewels including a Yamaha CS 50, OG Korg mono/poly, MS 20, Juno 106, Roland SH 5, Rhodes, Wurli, Prophet and a Moog Matriarch plus a whole bunch of weird sound manglers, delays, reverbs, boutique guitar pedals and processing units. I like to think of the studio as my main instrument and definitely relate to the wisdom of the late Lee Scratch Perry who said “I see the studio as a living thing, a life itself. The machine must be alive and intelligent. Then I put my mind in to the machine and the machine performs reality."
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 past I have been in situations with artists where I felt I heard a clear direction for them that encapsulated where they were at in life and what would be most exciting and engaging for them and their audience in terms of sonic pallette and song choice. Of course, that might not align to what they actually wanted. These days I have learnt to put aside my ego and my own vision and try and serve the artist and the song as best as I can. The art of musical collaboration is similar to being in any relationship, it's about trust and nurture and to some degree about releasing control.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
I go through periods of GAS and gear fixation. I work mostly with Logic for vocal sessions and instruments and with Ableton for beats and electronic music. My current favourite synth is the Moog Matriarch and my fav drum machine is the Electron RYTM. My vocal mic of choice is the Neumann U87 and I am in love with the Beyerdynamic M160 for acoustic instruments. Ask me next week though and my answers will be different.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?
A career in music requires determination, dedication and adaptability. Learn as much as you can, talk to everyone who shares your passion, watch every single YouTube tutorial, get high, turn off the lights and jam, write with everyone you can, record everything, release music and put it out in the world and learn about success and failure and how neither is important. Remember to give credit where it’s due and take care of your collaborators both financially and emotionally.
Also, every once in a while, turn off the machines, go outside and listen to the world.
How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?
I use headphones everyday. I am still a massive music fan who checks out as many new releases as I can, either in the car or on a walk with headphones. I track with headphones in the studio, I mix with headphones, I sit on my back porch and wear headphones to listen to music.
Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?
My old hiphop group TZU once opened for Yasiin Bey (Most Def) at Splendour in the Grass. We had a conversation back stage and he dropped this pearl of wisdom - to make good music, live a good life.
How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?
The Audeze LCD X have been nothing short of a god send! They sound amazing and I have taken to tracking synths, composing and running mixes without monitors in my studio and just using the headphones for long stretches because they sound so good. Having a pair of headphones that gives me such a deep sound stage and true mix profile has meant I can travel and take my mixing work with me and feel secure knowing what I'm listening to translates.
Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?
I've recently been writing a new solo record under the name Joelistics which is a deep dive in to folkie, 70's synth song writing.
I actually had the headphones with me when I set up a mobile studio in a little seaside town called Bermagui. They were invaluable in the tracking process and to get mixes up and running.
I've also become the artist in residence with a Gamelan Orchestra in Melbourne called Gamelan Dananda and I've been sampling gongs and percussion and re-tuning synths to microtonal pitches under the guidance of the Audeze.