Audeze interviews pianist, composer and electronic musician Craig Taborn
August 27, 2020
Hailed by DownBeat as "one of the visionaries of the current wave", Craig Taborn is a pianist, composer, improviser and electronic music artist who has worked extensively in jazz as both a collaborator and leader. Craig's adventurous musical spirit has carved out a path for his unique vision in solo and group settings, often combining composition and improvisation into a seamless and mesmerizing tapestry.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on?
I am the main composer and band leader in most of my projects, or else I am involved in intensive collaborations with other artists.
How did you get started in music/audio production?
I have been playing piano and working with synthesizers/electronics since I was 12 years old. Music seemed to just emerge as the thing I was doing and by college I was touring in international Jazz groups, and at the same time I was working with quite a few electronic music artists and developing that side of my music as well.
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?
A interesting question. I would say that early in my touring career- in the mid to late 90s- I had a limited experience with performing electric music on stage live in a professional setting. So encountering well meaning but also limited sound engineers, who had been educated in the 1980s about sound and performance practice who would largely expect and insist on D.I. keyboard sounds, etc. (Direct Inject, with no amp or other devices to color the sound.) This is common practice even now, but presumes that the sound quality from the often compromised D/A converters in synthesizers back then, and also anemic signal from electric pianos, was desirable. Invariably they were not and it was not until a few years later that I was educated about achieving consistency by crafting my own sound through amplifiers or at least a submix, before sending any audio to the house. So there are documents of live performances of mine in the 90s on electric/electronic instruments that are really embarrassing as they were not at all what I was intending- many of these were made for major national and international media companies and still surface to this day. But these are just things that come with experience- the playing was still OK, but I am big on sound and accurately representing one’s voice so gear and capture are important to me.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
Even as an electronic music artist I am still a big fan of analog sound. So even with some digital processing I tend to like some encounter with analog coloration or sources (amplifiers, transformers, tube circuits, etc). One thing I did recently on a recording project was actually to do much capture with a very well calibrated Nagra tape recorder. This was less about tape coloration per se, as a well calibrated Nagra is a very clean mode of documentation, but just with a touch more “weight” or something from a very subtle tape compression. I have found that Nagra useful to track analog synths before recording them to a DAW with a high quality A/D converter (I use a Prism Lyra).
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire to get where you are in their own careers?
While not a guarantee for “career success”, I would say that being sure you are working on music that is fulfilling to you and favoring those opportunities over all others will ensure that as your career evolves you will be asked to do those things more and more. What you do now will be what you will be doing 10 years from now at a higher level. So while it is necessary and enriching to take any opportunities as they come- some attention and focus on figuring out what it is that you actually love will help guide decisions moving forward. So taking a gig that pays less but that you know you will love over one that pays more but is not what you ultimately want to do has almost always been the right decision.
How long have you been working with headphones, and what inspired you to start including them in your workflow?
I have worked with headphones approximately 23 years. Living in an apartment in NYC and often liking to work at unusual hours, it became a necessity to do critical mixing and listening work in my home studio using headphones. My studio room is just adjacent to a sound sensitive neighbor. While she is kind and understanding of the work I do, when inspiration strikes at 2AM it simply will not work to start playing my nearfield speakers into the room, no matter how quietly. And often I need to experience some of the energy of the music by listening at some kind of volume, so headphones have become an essential tool.
In my music making the quality of sound is the most important detail by far and the thing I spend the most time manipulating. Detail and imaging are essential, and my Audeze cans reveal so much more specificity of detail which allows me to be sure things are working the way I hope. And with my studio being in an apartment in Brooklyn, NY it is a great benefit to have headphones this comfortable and non-fatiguing that I can trust to deliver both accuracy and pleasing sound for those many hours of intense late night listening I spend.