Audeze talks to composer Michael A. Muller

September 20, 2023

Michael A. Muller is a composer based in Los Angeles, best known for his ensemble work with Balmorhea, which he co-founded in 2006. He began his dedicated solo music in 2019 with Lower River, a textural and meditative debut that toured globally as a multi-disciplinary exhibit. In September 2023, the Deutsche Grammophon label reissued his debut and followed in October with a reissue of its counterpart Lower River Reworks. Across his career, there exists a constant thread of collaborations with like-minded artists, which include William Basinski, Nils Frahm, Sam Gendel, Alva Noto and Hania Rani among others. Muller is currently scoring several film and multi-media projects leading up to his new full-length release with Deutsche Grammophon in 2024.

Michael A. Muller in the studio with his Audeze MM-500 headphones

"Aside from the pure pleasure of the MM-500s settling into place on my head (which is truly an audible sigh moment every time), there also exists a simultaneous relief and affirmation when I mix on them."  - Michael A. Muller
Here's our chat with Michael:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

Aside from original compositions for studio albums and scoring for films, I’ve found myself doing a fair amount of remixing and reworking of other artists’ music. This has proven both wholly inspiring and challenging. Adding something of value or re-arranging an existing track that is already near perfect on its own can be a harrowing task. In the end, it’s all about layering and stitching in a new-but-fitting voice that changes the frame of reference. I liken it to looking at the same view of the sea, from the same cliff but altering the angle —sometimes even altering the color of the water itself.

I recently reworked a piece for the virtuosic Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. The track was solo piano, just a single stereo file. In setting up the session, I noticed the melody was intricate and the key changed many times. Then, when attempting to tap out a click, I realized that there was nothing near a consistent tempo. I ended up using only a very small group of arpeggiated piano accents from the original as structural elements and then composing a totally new musical arc underneath. While the result sounded nothing like the original, these punctuating anchors held down its uncut color and mood. The end result is very simple in construction but was a conclusion I could only come to after many days of exploring, experimenting, and finally exhausting dozens of other options. Sometimes a lengthy and arduous journey leads us to a very simple and clear conclusion.

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

Throughout my 20s and early 30s I focused solely on composing. It wasn’t until my mid-to-late 30s that I started to focus more energy into learning the science and language of production. Currently (and in a very rudimentary way), I’d say I’m a producer first and an editor second. Steering the creative and technical decisions that go into a project before any music is composed is the primer for all composition and performance that follows. After that, editing the next most-crucial process — deciphering what colors or voices need to remain and which can fall away.

Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity.” Much easier said than done. Paring away the erroneous or redundant is often a highly difficult task, especially when I’m usually working alone on a micro level in the weeds for long spans of time on a project. I’ve been intentionally testing different techniques to better hone my perspective in the editing process. Sometimes this includes taking a break and going on a walk, or calling my mom just to chat, or going to the record shop to flip through the bins. The hope is that in the end, the solution will reveal itself and the slow path will yield the truest and deepest iteration of what the piece is meant to be.

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

My dad played folk guitar and taught me the basics as a kid. At home we listened to the White Album, Pet Sounds and Paul Simon’s Graceland but also a New Age artist named Ray Lynch and his illuminating first album Deep Breakfast. I attribute Ray’s music with forming the subconscious base from where I drew my inspiration as I began learning how to listen and think about music in a serious way as a teenager. He used analog synthesizers and drum machines juxtaposed and blended with ancient and baroque acoustic instruments like harpsichord, lute, and strings. Around that time, I also gravitated toward more aggressive music that paired well with my love of skateboarding in the late 80s; early Metallica, Iron Maiden, then finding Bad Brains and Minor Threat around the same time that the grunge era hit, which I was also deeply interested in. Then in 1996, my musical brain sort of split open when I discovered Tortoise. Their self-titled LP showed me what could be done instrumentally by harnessing restraint and balance while exercising a rare freedom in pushing known genre boundaries.

I continue to discover music from the 50s and 60s and recently have fallen head over heels with all the jazz albums that Rudy Van Gelder engineered as well as the RCA Living Stereo classical releases from the late 50s (primarily the Fritz Reiner-conducted titles with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra).

As a vinyl collector and analog hi-fi enthusiast, I’ve found recordings from the ‘golden era’ blow all other music out of the water in terms of depth, sound staging, and instrument separation in vinyl playback. The first moment I heard an all-analog cut of this perfectly recorded and expertly pressed music, it was truly something I could never unhear or forget. I am at heart a listener foremost. The music I endeavor upon is wholly informed by and intrinsically inspired from listening. All of those repeated melodies etching themselves inward, mingling with my own perspectives to then be recapitulated in a new, unique language in some sort of response. I think this process of intake, internalizing, and informing is always the case with all meaningful art we encounter.

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

The most moving creative act to me is when the work’s creator is solely beholden to their own distinct vision — embodying a truly unique portrayal of the way they process, incorporate, and transmit their worldview. Some of the names that come to mind as personal inspirations include Robert Adams, Harold Budd, Nat King Cole, Lawrence English, Enya, Bill Evans, Liz Harris, David Lynch, Ian MacKaye, Agnes Martin, Cormac McCarthy, Jason Molina, Pauline Oliveros, Jeff Parker, Rick Rubin, Sam Shepard, and Tilda Swinton.

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

My composing tools have historically been fretted instruments but in recent years I’ve found myself turning to piano or the Rhodes to draft first skeletons on a piece. These sketches will usually get translated into whatever voice or timbre may be ideal for any given situation. In the studio, I love running synths through the REDDI from A Designs, a tube-based direct input unit. It also works exquisitely for bass guitar, as its architecture and circuitry was inspired by the classic Ampeg B-15 amp. In the box, I use plug-ins sparingly and prefer to affect the signal on the front-end before it goes into the computer. However, I do use the Fab Filter Pro-Q seemingly more than anything in any given session.

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

Aside from overdubs in tracking, I use headphones primarily in the mix process. My studio is adjacent to my partner’s workspace, so I’m mindful of not blasting my monitors (especially when I’m working on an intense score while a call with clients is going on through the next wall). A truly balanced and honest headphone is an immensely useful tool in moving a mix along with speed and precision. A fair amount of trust is also granted to the headphones when checking mastering passes for both digital and vinyl. The clarity and accuracy rendered from headphones can’t be understated in times of critical listening.

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

I have found that the most valuable thing in work but also in life is to understand who you are, what your own taste is, and to fully embrace both. Strive to resist all urges to deviate from the inner voice. Pull away from myopia and consider the long view in all situations. The only control we have is in the idea and the creation. Once transmitted into the world, it is no longer ours; then it’s back into the studio or writing room to start whatever comes next.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

I first came across Audeze through my interest in hi-fi. It was only later that I began recognizing engineers and musical artists that I highly admired often had Audeze headphones as part of their studio or live rig. In 2021, I used the LCD-X headphones in the mix process of my forthcoming full-length album and have never looked back. With the MM-500s now as a key piece to my workflow, I look forward to each time I open up a session knowing I’ll get to work on and hear my mixes at their absolute best.

Aside from the pure pleasure of the MM-500s settling into place on my head (which is truly an audible sigh moment every time), there also exists a simultaneous relief and affirmation when I mix on them. At once, I am assured that the audio will translate affectively and accurately across all playback systems. It’s been a long time since a single piece of gear has me this excited to create music.

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

I’ve recently wrapped a series of short film scores, a remix of one of my tracks for a trailer and the pre-production sketches for my next feature film score.

Michael A. Muller's Audeze MM-500 headphones