The Sound Business Pro - Interview with Altruwest
Posted on 04 November 2022
Producer, sound designer, tech enthusiast, iOS advocate & observer J. Myracks, pka, Altruwest is one of our industry's most well known thought leaders. A constant voice for betterment in our community, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone with as much music production industry wisdom and professionalism. Senior Product Manager at one of the largest, most impactful music software companies worldwide, Altruwest has probably forgotten more than most will ever know in this landscape. You'll be blessed by this interview. The hiphop production landscape is changing & he's got a good idea of where it may be headed & how you can succeed by adapting. Level up & enjoy the read...
1. Explain for our audience who Altruwest is, where you're from, & a bit about your journey/career in the music business…
I'm a third generation Los Angeles native that grew up during the golden era of Hip Hop. I’ve been producing music since 2000 and got into sound design in 2005. I’ve had many production monikers over the years including: Focused Master (2000), FM Productions (2003), F Major and Altruwest Productions (2007). I’ve worked in a number of areas in the music business such as:
Record production for artists such as: Daz Dillinger, Shade Sheist, Locksmith, Sir Jinx, 2nd II None, Clinton Wayne and more.
Producing factory demos and Sound libraries for Yamaha hardware instruments (Motif ES Rack and XS) beginning 2005.
Sync placements on TV networks including NBC, MTV, VH1 and more since 2008
Lead Sound Designer for Native Instruments North America beginning 2009, developing products such as George Duke Soul Treasures, The Maschine Expansions Line, iMaschine Factory and Expansion libraries and assisting on a number of Kontakt and Reaktor instruments.
Digital Supply Chain Manager for Sounds.com beginning 2017.
Senior Product Manager for Sounds.com since 2020.
2. What was your first serious gear purchase when you started?
In college I discovered the world of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) and virtual instruments and began to build my setup. I spent a little bit of time with the HammerHead Rhythm Station software which helped me learn how to program beats. I later bought Acid Hip Hop software, which was a lite version of Acid with Hip Hop sounds included.
My first “official” production setup consisted of a Casio MIDI controller, Fruity Loops and Cakewalk 8 Deluxe. I primarily used samples and the EMU soundfont libraries for sound sources during that era. I used Fruity Loops at that time to create drum loops which I imported into Cakewalk and then layered with MIDI production using the Soundfont player.
This setup eventually ran its course for me and in 2002 I purchased my first hardware instruments, Roland JV-1080 and the MPC 2000XL. At that time I didn’t really know much about recording still, so everything went into a mackie mixer which I ran into the SoundBlaster Soundcard on my PC (the quality was terrible). Once I got my first serious hardware It allowed me to more confidently make music without needing to do as much troubleshooting. I eventually upgraded my soundcard to the Delta 44 audio interface which is what I recorded a lot of my early work with artist Clinton Wayne on.
3. Can you tell us about your production process? You've been a long time advocate of iOS and incorporating a hardware setup specifically with apps like Korg Gadget. How are you blending those into your workflow these days?
I’m an advocate for using any and all creative tools for production. I don’t necessarily have a singular writing process. My main production environment is Logic Pro X, which I can use for pretty much everything these days if I wanted to, since it comes with such a robust set of built in tools and instruments. I still enjoy using Maschine Mk3 for making beats because of the tactile buttons and features. I occasionally work in Ableton Live as well, but not as much as I did maybe 10 years ago.
Sometimes I will use older hardware to get inspiration because it forces me to dig deeper into the tools to get a sound. My favorite hardware to use is the MPC 4000, Novation Summit, Studio Electronics SE-1X and the Waldorf Blofeld.
I used to be a heavy user of the Motif ES for many years, but software instruments slowly but surely moved me away from workstation keyboards. These days, if I want to get workstation style sounds while still using hardware sequencers, this is where my iPad becomes clutch. I use my iPad loaded with Korg Gadget and Sampletank to generate workstation style instruments. My ipad is connected to a Komplete Audio 6 interface which has 6 audio ins and outs and MIDI in and Out. This setup has been a game changer for me because it’s ultimately more flexible than any workstation I’ve used. On top of the flexibility in sound shaping, stacking and effect processing, it is easier to recall sessions using the iPad because of the large internal storage.
4. How would you describe the Altruwest sound?
My production is heavily influenced by 80’s music production. I enjoy a combination of electronic synth pads, basses and leads, drum machines and electric instruments like guitars and rhodes. Genre wise I would say that my sound is heavily funk and jazz inspired, but I still incorporate Hip Hop culture and aesthetics into everything I do.
5. How has iOS helped & shaped your particular style of music production? Do you feel it's ready to be taken seriously by today's modern music producer?
Mobile music production has been a large component of my career. Having helped develop the iOS app iMaschine helped me to rethink sound library development to cater to the limitations of touch screens as an input. Stylistically, mobile music production helped me to incorporate “found sound” more often into my music, since I can take the iPad or iPhone to any location and record sounds. Prior to the iPad I would have to take a field recorder and mics to record sounds, transfer to a computer, edit, process etc. The iPad is literally a one stop shop that allows me to record, edit, process and begin writing music.
I think the perception of tools is generally relative to the amount of accolades and success associated with the tools. In the case of iOS, there are several notable “Champions” such as Madlib and Steve Lacy, which have more than validated the platform. Validation however, is not simply a matter of record placements. I believe the more important validation that we are waiting for is app sales. Many larger players in the software development domain are seemingly on the sidelines waiting for app sales to validate a serious expenditure in developing a full line of mobile production applications. Once this happens, I believe the modern music producer will have no choice but to take iOS seriously.
With iPads being so cheap (and powerful these days), I can't imagine why anyone would remain asleep. AUM changes the game, especially if you plan to use the iPad as a sound module.— J. Myracks (@Altruwest) September 23, 2020
Here's some insight on how I'm using the iPad as a "Workstation": https://t.co/elQ7XWDRUR
6. Your vantage point is unique in that you've worked for and have been a big part of the success at one of the most dominant brands & industry leaders in the field. How has your time at NI shaped your own music production, outlook on the music business, and the overall landscape in this niche?
Working at NI helped me to refine my professionalism in my production. Working on multiple projects with set deadlines and coordinating with many different stakeholders (in different time zones) requires organization and strong follow through. During my tenure with NI, I’ve had to focus more on the needs and motivations of music creators especially while managing the needs and requirements of the company. There are points where the needs of the music creator can conflict with the needs of the software developer which can be frustrating to navigate. It’s a delicate balance trying to keep all sides happy.
Producers want more features, more stability, more efficiency and the latest sounds. Development costs money and software businesses need to make decisions on where to best allocate personnel for the maximum returns. The recurring theme that I see in the music business landscape is that data and analytics will drive the direction of the associated technology. The more consumers spend money in a specific area, the easier it is for developers to justify allocating resources and capital into development in that area.
7. We can imagine you've seen trends come and go. From drum kits and sample packs, the mediums in which musicians interact with fans, to the platforms and means of selling/promoting an end product. While most things eventually come back around, what are some current ideals you're seeing in the industry that will be obsolete in your opinion? Those that will be here for years to come?
Smartphones changed communications and the development of the internet forever. We will never have the era of Mp3.com and Myspace as the dominating behaviors online. Mobile experiences will continue to dominate how we interface with the internet and also how we communicate with each other.
These days people hardly use email to communicate with their friends and family members. The average person primarily uses email today to login into e-commerce websites and other user websites required to manage their personal profiles. Since most of us have smartphones now, instant messaging and text messaging are now unified. We can see trends of people preferring to contact their friends and even strangers via social media DMs over email.
There’s probably a number of reasons for this, but ultimately the DM seems to be closer to real time and more personal than email, which can be very formal in nature. Also with the amount of marketing that is done via email marketing solutions, I would imagine that most people’s inboxes are 90% promotional emails and account updates. The trend seems to continue to move towards more personal communication mediums that connect directly with another human in real time.
8. With that in mind, how can today's modern music producer find sustained success in your opinion?
I think music producers today need to invest more time in learning their audience. It’s not necessary to bend yourself into something that your audience wants completely, but it’s critical to understand the motivations of your audience in order to better engage them. Your audience does not dictate who you are and what you do.
We often think that we can just put out a product that we believe is “excellent” and the customer will automatically buy, but that’s often not reality. Use a smaller set of your audience to engage directly and speak to them. Find out more information about who they are, what their pain points and motivations are and offer a reward for the information they’ve provided. Use that information to develop products that better serve their needs while aligning with your own strengths and capabilities.
I think our habit of generally posting a promotion or message on social media has caused too many of us to heavily rely on “the algorithm” to connect us with an audience. Most people are not willing to provide any deep information about themselves on a social post/comment section. This means in order to have a deeper connection with your audience, it requires that we take steps directly to connect (whether that be virtually or in person). Use the modern tools we have available to your advantage. Don’t be afraid to hop on a private video call with a subset of your audience to better understand them. Use live video streams to connect in real time to establish more trust with your audience.
9. In your position, what are music producers lacking most in order to be well rounded business men & women out here?
Music Production today has largely become a computer based activity between a human and a computer. A lot of what is missing in that set of activities is the personal connection. We manipulate computers to do what we want all day, but it doesn’t refine our interpersonal and relationship skills. The ability to communicate efficiently and promptly will still carry you a long way. Following through on gigs and opportunities in a timely fashion will help you cut through the sea of producers that generally aren’t ready to work. Managing expectations is an important part of relationship management. The best way to manage expectations is to be transparent about what you can do and when you can do it, before agreeing to working on a project.
10. A quick glance at your Twitter will show you're an advocate of tech, gaming, & the parallels of those in music. Can you give us your thoughts on the subjects and how we can use what we're seeing in those industries to our advantage?
Music producers were some of the first computer users to adapt a virtual work environment. We traded our physical studios in for virtual studios represented on computer screens. Our DAWs can be seen as recording studio simulators. With that in mind, music producers are a type of gamer, focusing on the “music simulation” side of gaming. With esports and gaming becoming a dominant activity online for a large set of people globally, some music producers will find success leaning harder into the idea that modern music production is a type of gaming.
We should leverage the modern tools and culture associated with gaming such as Twitch (and TwitchCon), study the format and style of communication used by successful streamers to build your own communication strategy that incorporates gaming/streaming concepts. We should keep in mind that music is an art, but commercially it is considered entertainment. It is up to each of us to figure out how to leverage our art as entertainment. The gaming analogy gives music producers an opportunity to role play and develop a more compelling storyline to entertain their audience.
I still believe that many of the answers regarding the future of music lies in the gaming domain.— J. Myracks (@Altruwest) December 9, 2021
11. You've spent some time on Youtube! So many of us recall your early F Major videos and those classics. Talk to us about YT for producers. Useful? Necessary today? What's changed in the years since you've first started there?
When I first started using YouTube in 2006, it was a video platform that was not monetized. I used Youtube to show people what I did as a music producer and my journey. Some of the videos I made early on were designed as tutorials as I received comments from viewers. Over time I began to adjust my content to help aspiring producers navigate building computer based music production studios. Youtube was much more of a blackbox before monetization, so we could pretty much upload anything and get views.
Once Youtube monetized the platform, it began to implement “business logic” which changed the priority of videos that received views based on the best fit for the paid advertisers on the platform. Youtube is a Google owned platform, which also means that they leverage their search engine technology as a main component of the service. Youtube is now one of the largest search engines on the planet and a primary place where people discover music.
Music producers need to acknowledge that search is the dominant behavior on Youtube and use that to their advantage. If you are an up and coming producer, people are not necessarily searching for your name/brand directly, but could be introduced to your brand by way of more popular search topics. As a music producer you are not limited to discussing music production topics at all. You can create useful/entertaining videos for just about any topic that aligns with your personal interests and sync your music behind the videos. Today it is more difficult to break through and get subscribers on Youtube, but it will remain a viable medium to showcase your music.
I think it's also important to not get sucked into behaviors that lean too heavily into “growth hacking” and “algorithm feeding”. Post videos at your own pace, but be strategic about what you post about. If you hate video editing or shooting videos, collaboration is key. Hire people to record and edit your videos.
12. Do you think today's music producer is as adaptable as they should be? With as fast as things change out here, how can being more adaptable benefit us?
There are several generations of music producers all producing concurrently (Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zs). Each of these generations will hold a unique world view and association with technology. I think for those of us that were alive before the modern incarnation of the internet, it will be more difficult for us to adapt our behaviors to new cultural norms. We should always stay open minded to understand and evaluate the current state of affairs. We don’t need to change ourselves fundamentally in order to adapt to new opportunities. It’s up to each of us to determine the best parts of new technologies and tools and leverage them to our benefit.
13. The landscape now seems to lean toward a producer wearing 1000 hats. From the actual music production to now doing videography, cinematography, video editing, graphic design, illustration, marketing; all the way to a gang of social media management! Beneficial or not, have we gotten too far away from the art in your opinion?
A lot of aspiring professional musicians tend to bootstrap early in their journey. When you don’t have a lot of money or resources, you will undoubtedly be responsible for wearing more hats to get things done. As you gain more resources and more connections, it’s always a good thing to learn to delegate tasks and responsibilities to specialists that can help you to execute your ideas. Don’t be afraid to invest money to develop your idea.
It’s also important to realize that there is no requirement to turn your art into a business, this is a choice. If you simply love the art form and don’t care for the business, you can choose to just perform the art and not worry about modern marketing, communications, and business strategies. If you just want to share the music, you can do that for free on a number of platforms without friction, at your own discretion.
14. We're hearing a lot about mental health these days in the industry. From artists cancelling shows to it permeating the lyrics of well known records. What are your thoughts on managing stress and taking care of your mental health in the music industry? Are we simply doing too much for too little reward?
A lot of the mental health issues can be looked at as spiritual issues ultimately. Music and money can easily become idols for us. At the end of the day, I believe that God has a real purpose for music and it is not for our glory but for His. The moment we start idolizing music, musicians, fame, fortune, etc, it easily can create sickness and disease in our bodies. It’s important to remember that music is a tool which we turned into art.
We inherently understand that our lives cannot be centered around a single tool and one tool cannot be used for all tasks. There is also a risk of repetitive strain injury when using a single tool all day and night. It’s important to balance out your life physically, mentally and spiritually. Professionals should have set schedules, delivery dates and even cut off times when possible. It’s important to have rest, to have time to focus on strengthening your body, building up your mind with edifying information and most importantly strengthening your relationship with God.
15. If you were starting out today, brand new to the industry, what steps would you take to get going?
If I were starting out today with the intention of being a professional, I would definitely leverage the understanding that most musicians use music as a segway to other business opportunities. I would cut to the chase immediately and intentionally. Instead of positioning myself as simply a talent to be discovered, I would build my music brand in a way that already aligns with a profitable industry/activity set (i.e Fashion, Gaming, Cars etc). I would use my music to build songs that creatively align with the culture associated with those industries and activities. This doesn’t necessarily mean creating songs that are solely ads, but more so to build a catalog that has socially and culturally relevant themes that easily connect to the industries and activities. I think it’s important to build a catalog of songs that have a purpose and can be used to communicate ideas that support business in those industries.
Once I established which culture and community I wanted to connect with, I would spend more of my time collaborating and hiring artists and writers to create singles that connect with the culture/community/industry I’ve aligned with. Use the specificity in industry to build merchandise and experiences that directly apply to the audience/culture. Know what you want to align with so that you can set the parameters instead of letting an industry select you.
Once you begin to successfully monetize the music strategically, you can always use your own money to create more personal creative projects that express your own story. It’s more difficult to monetize your own story or personal ideas when you are unknown, without a budget to execute.
16. Who are you currently jamming and what's inspiring you these days?
I’ve been heavily enjoying Bay Area artist LaRussell as his music and business strategy is highly refreshing. I also enjoy the music that Jayson Cash, Villain Park and Tee Grizzley are making.
17. Any projects on deck or things in the works for you at the moment?
I’ve been working with LA based artist Honey Blu who should be releasing an EP soon featuring several tracks produced by me. I’m always working on music technology projects/products but as you know they stay private until the release date!
18. Where can we find you?
You can always reach out to me at my website: Altruwest.com