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Interview: Olivia Broadfield on Macs, apps and DIY music making


You've probably not heard of UK based singer songwriter Olivia Broadfield before, but chances are you've heard her music at some point, especially if you watch a lot of TV. Songs from her debut album, Eyes Wide Open (released in 2009), reached over 50 TV placements on shows like The Hills, Ghost Whisperer and Melrose Place. Following that, Eyes Wide Open reached No. 3 on the iTunes Electronica charts.

Daydreams, the opening track from Olivia's second album, This Beautiful War (released in June, 2011), was featured on a recent episode of Grey's Anatomy. And if that's not enough, in her spare time Olivia composes jingles for commercials, too.

After reading that, you'd be forgiven for assuming Olivia works in swanky studios around the world while she's not touring, and that she has the backing of a big record label behind her, too. But her situation couldn't be more different.

In fact, Olivia hasn't really done all that much gigging (let alone any tours), she's not with a record label and the studio where she does all her recording, well... it's an old garage attached to the side of her house. OK, she's converted said garage into a modest-but-capable DIY studio, and yet, it's not the rock 'n roll lifestyle you'd expect. That's not a bad thing.

What really caught my attention, besides her music, was Olivia's setup. Without wanting to undermine the clear production power that it has, it's an undeniably simple setup with absolutely no frills. And to me, that's a testament to the musical creativity of Olivia, the Mac and DAW at the center of her studio and the reality that producing great music doesn't always require the most expensive gear and equipment you can (or usually can't) get your hands on.

About a week ago I was fortunate to get the opportunity to chat with Olivia over Skype. Tea cups in hand, we chatted about the tools she uses to produce her music, a little about her workflow as a songwriter, her musical and production influences and what she does to recharge her creative batteries. Read on to find out what she had to say.

TUAW: Tell me about your current setup? What gear are you using? How do you make the magic happen?

Olivia Broadfield: So I have a Mac Pro. It's got two 2Ghz Dual Core Intel Xeon processors in it with 8 GB of Ram. I've had it for a year or so. I bought it second hand off this guy on eBay who was selling off gear from his studio that I don't think worked out. I got it for a really great price. When he handed it over I could tell he wasn't too happy about it, but I was!

I'm running Mac OS X Snow Leopard. I like to stay one release behind the latest release so everything's super stable.

I've got two screens (one old school Apple one that came with the Mac Pro and one Acer one). I'm a Reason Record user, so my 2 screens make mixing and programming super quick and easy.

I'm using a Focusrite Saffire PRO 24 interface, little M Audio BX5a monitors and a Rode NT2000 mic. I have to confess I did have an outboard compressor, but sold it because I never used it as the pre-amps on the Focusrite are so great. The MIDI keyboard I use is a M-Audio Prokeys 88 SX.

TUAW: Was your Mac Pro your first Mac?

OB: Ha! No. I got my first Mac off eBay about 6 years ago! It was an old silver door G4 Mac, I can't even tell you the spec, but I know it was probably pretty teeny compared to what I have now! It still sits under my desk as a giant hard drive because it's got loads of my old music on it, but I rarely plug it in these days. Back then I was using Reason and Logic with ReWire, (which was a pain in the backside), and it struggled a bit with that, but it still got the job done.

Before that I had a PC, but really just for emailing etc. I've never been a PC for music user. Studios I used before I set up my own always had Macs and I just believed that they were more stable units for making music on. From what I can tell, they don't suffer the same virus problems, so I think I felt my music and data was safer in the hands of a Mac.

TUAW: So now you're a Reason 6 user and you've left Logic behind. Why Reason, don't all the big players use Pro Tools or Logic?

OB: Well, usually people are quite surprised when they hear I'm using Reason. People seem to get all snobbish about the fact that I'm not a Pro Tools or Logic user. They give me the look that says, "aww, that's sweet. She's playing with Reason." But when they see Reason in action, they're genuinely impressed.

At university, I did use Pro Tools, but to get Pro Tools for yourself is quite expensive. So one day I was recording at a friends house and he was using a really old version of Reason, maybe 2.0. It was quite a long time ago! But Reason just looked really accessible compared to what I'd seen in Pro Tools or Logic. So when I set up my own studio and became my own producer, because I'm not a very technical person when it comes to recording, I knew I'd need something simple and easy to use, so I got Reason. Of course, back then Reason didn't do audio recording, so I got an old version of Logic off eBay to handle that side of things, but once Reason came out with Record, I happily left Logic behind. And that's why I love Reason, but I guess I'm just used to it now.

I must add that I do have a producer (Josh Crocker) I work with as well as a few others who I bring into the mix for the final finishing touches to my music. I like to think of it as the icing of a cake, I bake it, and then get some others in to help me decorate it.

TUAW: There are so many great music apps out there for the iPhone and iPad. Do you have an iPhone or iPad? Do any particular apps assist you in the workflow of how you make music.

OB: No iPod or iPad, but yep, I have an iPhone 4 -- although I'm ashamed to say I haven't updated it to the latest version of iOS, yet! My friends give me grief for that!

I know there are so many music apps out there, but I tend to just use the inbuilt voice memo for ideas and getting down songs, particularly if I'm out and about or it's late at night and I can't be bothered to boot the studio up. As I get most of my initial ideas on piano and guitar, I find just the dictaphone on its own meets most of my needs.

The other night I was twinkling on the guitar and came up with a little skitsy idea that would work great for an advert., I was able to put the idea down from start to finish on the iPhone so I could remember it the next day. It's nothing fancy, but it simply gets the job done. I actually think the iPhone mic is pretty good for that sort of thing.

TUAW: While we're talking about iPhones... Besides all the usual suspects (the Mail app, Safari, Facebook etc) what apps do you find you use the most on your iPhone.

OB: I love Hipstamactic. And I do use the Flashlight app A LOT!

One of the weirder apps I've got is Shakra Chime. It literally plays a chime! That's it! I find it helps me calm my mind.... You know, after a busy day of making music with tunes buzzing around your head. Oh, I also like Sleep Maker, where it's just rain noise. "Gentle rain onto porch roof." That is my favorite!

TUAW: What about when you're not making awesome music, how do you spend your down time? Any games you into?

OB: When I first go the iPhone, I played games all the time. The popular ones like Angry Birds. Oh, and Bejewled. I was obsessed with trying to score a million on Bejeweled, but I only got about 700,000. I am a bit of a nerd, so I do love games like Scrabble and other word games.

I could just spend all day my iPhone playing games. So occasionally, I have to force myself to go outside and look at animals and hear bird song!

TUAW: Who are your musical influences? What artists and musicians really inspire you to make music?

OB: I like people who are versatile, people who keep it fresh. I love Gwen Stefani for that reason. Influence wise, I think Feist is a beautiful singer and songwriter, her career is the one I would probably like the most. I've seen her live and she just has this great energy, relaxed like everything comes so easy to her.

TUAW: What about recording / producing influences? Are there people out there who really inspire you about the technical side of making music?

OB: When I first set up my studio over 5 years ago, Imogen Heap's Speak For Yourself album was huge. Seeing someone go out there, particularly a woman in such a male dominated studio world, and do everything herself was very motivating.

I have to say, I'm not the most able technically, which is why I love my software, the presets are pretty amazing and I can make some great sounding stuff without having to tweak much... Or I'm just lazy... Yeah, probably the latter!

TUAW: Here's a curve ball, but If you open iTunes and click on the Top 25 Most Played playlist, what's the number one song you listen to in your music library?

OB: Um... That can't be true. OK, it's a dog food commercial song that I did. I can't believe that's my most played song in my iTunes library, especially since I just finished my album and I should have been listening through to those tracks over and over AND OVER again to make sure they were all fine. Oh well... slightly embarrassing!

OK, here's the thing. I don't listen to music on my studio Mac. I am really, totally old school when it comes to listening to music. I listen to CD's in my lounge. In fact, oh gosh, I've never downloaded a digital song...

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