Apart from being my closest friend since childhood and an extremely talented artist/musician, Brian DeLizza has an impressive and extensive background as a Recording Engineer, Sound Designer, Educator, and Administrator. He is my go-to guru when it comes to audio as well as many other things. I feel so fortunate to know him personally and want to invite you guys to hear his story and his thoughts on matters of music production, audio, music styles to come and also advice for those just starting out…. I will first provide some background about Brian and then ask him some questions I feel are important.
I first met Brian in 6th-grade elementary school when we shared a classroom and realized we both played guitar and listened to the same music. Brian would invite me to his house after school and we would jam out on his dad’s guitars in his garage. These jam sessions quickly turned into the 2 of us forming a band. We both took private music lessons so we progressed fast. Early on we wanted to record our songs and luckily his dad had a very basic 4-track tape recorder to use. We remained loyal to alternative rock music through middle school all the way up to freshman year of high school, where hip hop and electronic music took center stage for both of us. This was in 1998/1999 so it was a very exciting time to be involved in the scene. Brian had learned quickly how to operate an Akai Mpc 2000 and was also very interested in learning to make beats with music software as well as using turntables to mix different records together and perform scratch techniques. The 2 of us would often visit different record shops in the Bay Area together. On Saturday nights you could probably find us listening to our favorite underground electronic music FM radio broadcast.
As we both approached graduation of High School it was time for us to decide on colleges and what we wanted to do professionally. Brian was accepted to California State University Monterey Bay where he planned to study marine biology. After a few years there, Brian decided it wasn’t the right choice for the rest of his life and so he enrolled in Full Sail University in Florida to study audio engineering. After gaining a plethora of knowledge and hands-on experience at Full Sail, Brian returned to his home in California. Initially, he took on employment at a large musical instrument store called Guitar Center and rose to become Assistant Store Manager in almost no time at all. He also worked as a Freelance Recording Engineer during that time and after earning a solid reputation as a skilled audio engineer the obvious next step was to rent studio space and expand his business. Brian found space in Fremont, CA, and named the studio Indopendence Studios LLC. For 3 years he owned and operated Indopendence Studios before deciding to share space with a colleague in San Francisco. His new home became FreqLab Recording, located inside the famous Hyde Street Studios, where countless hit records were created. There he recorded and produced bands and artists from start to finish and also managed marketing, maintenance, and other business areas for the studio until the end of 2013.
Since 2012 Brian has been working for SAE Institute North America, first as Audio Technology Program Department Chair then as National Manager of Learning Technologies and since 2018 as the Associate Director of Business Intelligence. SAE Institute, for those who are unaware, is a school that teaches audio technology and sound engineering and has campuses in many different locations across the globe. It also happens to be where I did my studies.
I asked Brian out of the blue if he would allow me to interview him for this blog and the reason I asked him was because, not only does he have a ton of knowledge and experience in the field of audio to share, but because I realized that even after so many years of being friends I still haven’t quite got him all figured out.
So let’s get right down to business…..
RALPH: Hey Buddy, thanks for letting me interview you. It’s an honor and I’m eager to hear what you have to say….
RALPH: First off, how many years have we known each other?
BRIAN: Good question – I think we met around like 1995 or 1996. Don’t recall exactly so lets say 25 years. My oh my how time flies…
RALPH: What does music mean to you?
BRIAN: A lot. For me music is one of the most powerful forms of human expression, if not the most powerful. Cliche as it is, music transcends language and allows humans to relate to each other on an emotional level.
From a listeners perspective music has the power to evoke emotions and feelings unparalleled with other forms of art, at least for me personally. It can set or change your mood, it can provide comfort in difficult times, it can provoke thoughts, self-reflection, and introspection, and provide identity or a state of focus or escape.
From a creator perspective music allows you to express your feelings and thoughts – both conscious and subconscious – and then share those with the world (if you choose to). Creating something that you love, are proud of, and enjoy listening to yourself is a very good feeling. It’s then a bonus when others can listen to the work, connect with it, and draw their own feelings and thoughts from it. When music is recorded it can serve as a personal diary for the creator, such that when a musician or composer listens to their work years later they can be teleported back to the emotional and mental state of when it was performed/created. That’s another thing I love about it, it’s like a time machine.
RALPH: Why have you dedicated your life to audio? What was it that attracted you to study sound engineering?
BRIAN: I think that all humans who experience music when they are young at some point develop an emotional bond with it. There is at least one piece of music you hear that will resonate with you and evoke emotion, and the feeling is magical. I was just one of the people that decided I wanted to be able to create or perform that music, I can’t remember exactly why. I started with guitar in elementary school (as you know, as evident in our short-lived band Candle Wax), and from there expanded to drums, and then to electronic music production, MIDI, DAWs, rapping, etc.
I started considering studying audio engineering when I was in high school and identifying colleges and careers (as most of us do at that age). After one semester of traditional college studying marine biology I decided to make the change and attend a recording program and focus on that as a career goal. As I think is the case with many people who start these types of programs, it appears that it’s a little bit more ‘viable’ or ‘realistic’ to have a career in audio engineering rather than being a musician. So my focus shifted from playing and creating music more to engineering music and audio for other people.
RALPH: You have built a grand collection of synthesizers as well as created a monster modular system. What attracts you to synthesizers?
BRIAN: In short – the infinite realm of sonic possibilities that synthesizers offer. I can create sounds that I have never heard before, which isn’t really the case when you are playing, say a guitar. Yes – you can certainly come up with a riff or a tone that is unique, but the range of timbres available combined with the ease at which you can create such drastically different sounds is a fairly unique characteristic of synthesizers. Plus – these days in the modular world I find myself mostly using sequencers or touch controllers as opposed to a traditional keyboard controller. When playing traditional instruments (piano, guitar, drums) I have a terrible habit of playing similar phrases over and over. Whereas when I am using sequencers I get a much wider range of melodies and such that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of or which would be physically impossible to play. The stochastic nature of some of the modular synth modules also allows for some delightfully unpredictable behavior, especially in a patch where a lot of the components are interacting. Put another way – shit gets wild, fast.
RALPH: Do you believe in muses, or spiritual beings who direct our decisions as producers and give us creative ideas and inspiration? Or is the music we create solely of our own construction and nothing else?
BRIAN: Sure. When I was operating a studio in San Francisco out of a historic studio building I used to have a lot of late night chats with my friend Butch (RIP). He used to tell me about the spirits of talented musicians lingering the halls and how their energy carried over to musicians and their performances. I didn’t initially buy it, but after many late nights playing music there I started to feel every now and then that something else might be contributing to a performance. I would get weird feelings where I’d be playing an instrument, and then I’d play something that I had never played before, fairly comfortably, as if I had suddenly inherited the knowledge and practice for that phrase. We smoked a lot of weed too so maybe it was just that – who knows – but I have certainly had experiences where I felt there was something almost supernatural occurring.
RALPH: Some say mixing is like meditation for them….. do you agree?
BRIAN: Eh – I guess it can be. It can also easily turn into a job that feels like work and you lose joy for it, which is what happened to me after I did it as a career for like 8 years. I transitioned away from recording and mixing music for other people as a career and I don’t regret it one bit. Now I can actually afford synths and other gear that I want and work on my own music, instead of dumping all my money into keeping a business afloat in an oversaturated declining industry in one of the most expensive cities in the US. So I guess to answer your question – mixing can be meditative, but not really for me – I prefer the creation of music and exploring sounds and for me that is definitely meditative. For example – I can sit and listen to a synthesizer generate sounds for hours and hours on end without recording anything, getting lost in the constantly evolving soundscapes. I’ll also do things like make a generative ambient modular patch and fall asleep to it – try it sometime, it’s amazing.
RALPH: What defines something as “art”? What makes it worthy of being called “art”.
BRIAN: I mean – I’m not an expert and I had to hesitate googling it and paraphrasing a textbook definition – but I’d say anything that you can connect with at some level. It could be the traditional creative areas such as music, film, literature, poetry, photography, painting, drawing, etc. – but I don’t even think you’d have to say it’s a manmade expression – it could be something that just occurs in nature like a pile of rocks in an interesting arrangement or a sunset. If it causes you to feel something, or think something, or question something then I think it’s art. I probably just pissed off a lot of art experts with that answer, I’ll google it after the interview…
RALPH: What direction do you see for the music industry, more specifically, what trends can we expect in the styles of music to come over the next 20 years or so?
BRIAN: I think we’re in a good enough time right now to get a snapshot of the styles going forward. I follow the belief that things come in cycles, so I think you will continue to see future generations create their own interpretation of a previous generation’s music while incorporating the influence they have from their current generation’s music. To further contribute to this – influence of each generation itself will get broader and wider over time. I guess you can apply that logic going all the way back to the beginning of music, but now that everything can be recorded and distributed with very little barrier to entry (and coupled with the fact that the entire catalog of humanity’s recorded music is accessible basically with a few mouse clicks) I think it’s safe to assume that the average musician listens to a wider range of genres than they did 50 years ago. I think the fact that so many sub-genres exist makes that more true.
Put another way because I just confused myself reading that back – I think the music an artist creates is a product of their influences, and as the pool of possible influences grows larger with time those combinations of a broader influence will manifest themselves in more diverse ways. Pretty much just a continuation of what’s been going on since we transitioned into the digital music / internet / information era.
RALPH: What was the biggest struggle you had to overcome in your life?
BRIAN: Uh – hmm. I guess the fact that I’m having a hard time answering this question is somewhat an answer in itself as I haven’t had many traditional struggles. Just to keep this somewhat related to the interview – I’d say entering the audio industry was a pretty big struggle and I didn’t even get to a career I’d consider “A” or even “B” level. I was struggling financially, I had zero work-life balance, I worked 10-12+ hour days often for months on end, I was loaded with student and other debts, I put work ahead of all my relationships causing them to crash and burn, I didn’t have much time or mental energy left for my own art, and I just in general had a lot of “bad luck” kinds of situations – especially financially. That being said – I built a lot of skills in that time and worked on some amazing projects that made it worth it. It’s an incredible feeling when you get to work on a record for an artist that you grew up idolizing and that was a huge influence on you. That alone is a feeling that makes it worth it. It also opened a lot of doors for me that allowed me to transition into the career I have today – which I am very grateful for.
RALPH: I think most of us would like to own a time machine. What’s the biggest thing you wish you knew then that you know now.
BRIAN: Eh I’d just mess it up in different ways if I knew what I know now.
RALPH: What do you feel is most important to tell students who are just starting off on the road of life with their musical hopes and dreams?
BRIAN: As far as advice, here’s a list of talking points as if I’m giving a graduation speech in 20 minutes and I haven’t prepared. Just off the top.
- Be patient and develop your ears. Learn to trust them. Also look up that Ira Glass quote about creative people. Just google it.
- Gear is never a substitute for skill. Use what you have. Don’t think buying a $100k SSL will make your mixes “magically” better. It won’t, you’ll still suck and have to put in time and practice anyways and also be out $100k. There are people out there doing way more than you with way less, trust me.
- If you are a musician, practice your instrument routinely. If you are learning to create music using a DAW and are drawing in your MIDI notes I strongly urge you to take piano lessons. I quantized my bullshit performances and pieced shit together for decades before I sat down and actually tried to learn to play piano and that’s one of my greatest regrets. Trying to learn to read music and play jazz piano when you’re in your 30s is definitely not as effective as if you learn early on.
- Be a lifelong learner, and don’t be a know-it-all. Nobody knows it all. If you want to have a long career in engineering you sure as shit better like learning things because the technology advances rapidly and you’ll need to keep up with the youngins and all their fancy key commands.
- Don’t get offended when a client asks you to make revisions to a mix. I’m sure your mix isn’t as good as you think it is anyways, and they are probably right about what needs to change. Treat it like a learning experience.
RALPH: Thanks so much my dear bro. Some really thought-provoking responses. I know for a fact that anyone reading this would agree that you have a rare and extremely accurate perspective on all things audio related and a strong desire to share your knowledge, wisdom and expertise openly with the world. I hope that we can conduct another interview in the near future. Thanks again!