Wearing the Many Hats of a Busy Synthesist
Songwriter, engineer, actor, and film & t.v. music producer Malik Williams
By Randy Alberts
If some commercial jingle writers’ first gigs were in garage bands, fewer still of those went on to also write and produce music for film, reality t.v., the Web and hip-hop, pop, dance, rap, R&B and rock artists. It takes a lot of control room savvy and musical chops to wear that many hats. But from this even smaller group of first-call music and audio professionals, there may be just one—Malik Williams—who can say they’ve written a song for a movie in which they’ve also starred.
“Yeah, I’m a real Hollywood kind of guy,” jokes the 41-year-old Williams, a Bostonian since birth who values his role as father and family man over his Sunset Boulevard connections. “What I mean is that I feel real comfortable in front of the camera doing these bit parts. It’s not really something that I’m pursuing as a career. I’ve just stumbled upon this acting thing, but so far it’s been a positive stumble.”
Malik’s song contribution and bit part as a cop in Boston Girls, a “dark horror comedy” film released this year, are two recent entries to an impressive credits list. His unique balance of old and new school music writing and production skills have been tapped for a host of song and album (Charlotte Church, Bobby Brown, Elton John, Mya, Britney Spears, Danity Kane, Tyrese, Earth Wind & Fire), feature film (Sony Pictures, Miramax, Disney, Lionsgate, Stage 6 Films) and television (CBS, ABC, MTV, VH1, TruTV, Showtime, HBO, E!, Bravo) productions. If you’ve seen Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Tila Tequila’s A Shot At Love, Pimp My Ride, Cribs and Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew or happened upon some of his various ad spots running on numerous channels, chances are you’ve heard some of Malik’s music, too.
“When you think of all the types of projects I work on—film, t.v. shows, ad jingles and hip-hop, pop and rap albums,” says Williams, “you’ll see my music and audio production tastes are all over the place.”
Sounds Like Vintage Rapture
Malik has also worked with Jordan Knight (from New Kids On The Block) Rich Cronin (LFO) and former 98 Degrees member Jeff Timmons, the latter with whom Williams is currently using Cakewalk’s Rapture extensively. They’re both inspired by ‘80s dance pop and the original synths used to create it way back in the day.
“Rapture is playing an important role for the new music we’re creating,” he notes. “Especially for the basses and synthy leads. Rapture authentically recreates those classic synths of the ‘80s. Back then we would’ve used a Roland Juno for these tracks—today, we depend on Rapture for that feel. As we go through the presets looking for sounds, Jeff and I look at each other like, ‘Wow, that sounds exactly like the old Juno!’”
When it comes to personalizing his sounds, Williams says he digs the way he can easily access Rapture’s Elements and individually assign effects to each.
“It’s very cool how Cakewalk has laid out Rapture’s parameters for tweaking sounds after the writing and performing of a track is done. I think I’m pretty good on the post-engineering side of things, but that mode doesn’t even come into my mind until after I’ve picked the right preset in Rapture to write and record the part. When it comes to modern pop and hip-hop music, I need to sound really unique from anyone else’s sounds. I love using Rapture to put my own signature on every sound.”
A Man With Many Hats
Of the many roles he plays—father, husband, synthesist, vocalist, engineer, actor, songwriter, jingle producer—Malik has also worn the hat of studio designer and builder. A 20’ x 20’ creative space in his Boston home is dedicated to his busy session work. Besides the usual challenges of getting one’s private studio perfectly tuned to their unique audio and musical needs, Williams particular working style—engineering every take, performing every instrumental part and singing almost every vocal track in his productions—was the toughest hurdle to designing his new space.
Putting The Rap In Rapture
“If I have to rap on something, I can do that. If the music calls for a really smooth R&B voice with harmonies behind it, I’ll do that, too. It’s cool having that ability to play all the instruments, produce and engineer every track, and sing every word a song needs for it to be perfect.”
Beyond having total creative control over his music, being the ultimate DIY-kind-of-guy must also put more green in Malik’s accounting spreadsheet.
“That’s good, too,” laughs Williams, “but working this way, most importantly, always makes the client more happy with the results. When they e-mail at 10 o’clock at night asking me to turnaround a new version of the music by the following morning, I can just do it. I don’t have to find and get another vocalist into my studio in the middle of the night to accomplish that. I never have to worry about coordinating the schedules of session players and vocalists. That’s especially important when a client asks me to turn something around by the next morning or, in some cases, even within an hour or two.”
Williams has paid very close attention to the evolution of electronic instrumental sound technology since his earliest ‘80s sessions. The resonant ring of a Minimoog filter; the snap attack of a TR-808’s snare; the massive phat of a four-oscillator Mono/Poly patch—a client just describes what they want to hear, and he delivers. The combination of his tech expertise, musical chops and historical respect for every genre of music make it easy for Malik to interpret any client’s request.
“I’ve been either lucky and/or good at putting my head into the space of whatever the client needs for their show, jingle or album. If someone just says, ‘I want hip-hop,’ for example, I’ll ask them to describe in more detail what specific kind of hip-hop they want. That concerns not only what genre of hip-hop they’re after, but also from what era that hip-hop was recorded in. That tells me, then, exactly what kind of instruments I’ll use to create that kind of music for them. If they say, ‘Well, I want some mid-‘80s hip-hop,’ then luckily—and this goes back to my expertise and knowledge of music and instruments—I know instantly what type, brand and model of instruments, synths, and drum machines were used to produce a particular song from that era.”
Luck, it can be said, has had very little to do with Malik’s innate—and intimate—knowledge of all things instrumental and vocal.
“It’s a huge advantage for me being a guy who has paid heavy attention to gear for so many years now,” Williams adds. “I’ll research what samples, synths, keyboards, guitars, drum machines, etc., were used for whatever era the client is asking me to re-create for them. I play live drums, too, but mostly it’s keyboards, guitars, bass, and various percussion instruments. Including the vocal style of a given musical genre or specific artist, that’s pretty much everything you need to know in order to produce the majority of music you hear on t.v. and in films. I still own and use many of the hardware synths and drum machines from the past 30 to 40 years. Between those and all the software synths in my computer [laughs]…wow, I have just about every sound, so far, that I’ve ever needed.”
Riffin’ On Dimension Pro
Busy as he is, Williams still loves going to music stores to test drive all things sampled and synthesized. A talented guy behind the desk, as well, he’s nonetheless quick to point out the dominance of his songwriting-jamming right brain over the engineering-post kind of left lobe. Often he has to pry himself away from a music store, though, just to “escape” the time-soaking inspiration he gets from browsing a soft synth’s killer presets. “I’ll end up with about 20 song ideas based just on where those presets take me. It’s just crazy! I hear a new sound and instantly I’m inspired by it to write something specifically for that preset.”
When a musician’s right brain has as many soft synths to choose from as Malik’s does—be it in-store or at the keyboard controller in his home studio’s vocal booth—why grab Cakewalk’s Rapture and Dimension Pro from such an exhaustive pull-down menu?
“Those two synths really stand out to me as very useful pieces for what I work on,” says Williams. “Honestly, I’ve been using both Rapture and Dimension Pro for everything I’ve done since getting both of those synths.”
Malik explains that when choosing which synths to best recreate the specific genre, era or song his clients ask for, many factors come to mind. Some synths are thinner, for example, or prettier, or dirtier, or more atmospheric than others, while others do well for just a particular sound or application he’s after. Others are great all-around types of synths or keyboards that Malik can use to recreate any number of sounds he’s been asked to deliver on a particular production.
“Dimension Pro takes me back to that all-around kind of synth/keyboard that does a lot of real sounding stuff really good. It gives me the phatness I want, too, yet when I need something prettier sounding, it’ll do that great, as well. It gives me a really full, great sounding palette of sounds to choose from that works great for any type of production I may be working on at any given time. Simply put, Dimension Pro will do anything. I can do really edgy, hardcore stuff with it on one take, then turn around on the next track to record something really pretty with it. Then for the next track I might use it to pull up those real-sounding acoustic instruments and strings it does so well, which are very dynamic. Regardless of what vintage or new instrument sound I’m after, Dimension Pro sounds real.”
A good example of some of his recent use of Dimension Pro is the self-described quirky music Williams wrote and produced for a Progressive Insurance commercial that he says has “a retro soul-orchestral sort of vibe” to it. Titled “Projector”—the spot features a Jeep’s headlights with vintage movie projector sounds—Malik recalls layering Dimension Pro’s authentically real acoustic bass, orchestral string and flute sounds over some ‘70s-style drum beats. For another recent Progressive commercial, called “Juggler,” Williams used Dimension Pro extensively to compose a piece of music he named “Rhino Walk” for it that definitely harkens back to a specific classic 1961 hit the Progressive creative folks had in mind for their spot.
“The client asked me to roughly recreate Henry Mancini’s ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ for that commercial,” Malik continues. “Like most everything else from that era, that song was originally recorded using eal instrumentation. Any purely synthesized keyboard or plug-in, of course, wouldn’t have been appropriate for that sort of piece. But the sounds in Dimension Pro are very real, so it worked perfectly for that commercial. Both myself and the client were very happy with how that piece turned out.”
That’s another feather in Malik’s professional hat: Actor, rapper, musicologist…and quirky ad jingle guy.
“Yeah, I pride myself on being a quirky sound guy, too. But, really, I’m a hip-hop guy first, so how did this happen? [laughs] How did I get from hip-hop to being paid for coming up with these quirky little music pieces for commercials? Take these Progressive commercials, for example: I can get a lot of music placed and licensed based simply on these quirky, short little commercial pieces that the clients really like. And, the viewers really notice those more, anyway, because that’s the kind of music they tend to like and remember the most from watching t.v. shows and commercials.”
Back To The Future With Rapture
“Now Rapture, on the other hand,” Williams explains, “is for when I need to use a very synthy piece of gear. Rapture is great for those quirky sorts of synth pieces I use a lot for some of the commercials I write for, too. The array of sounds in it are more dynamic than most any other synth I use. I can do some cool synth leads and basses with it, as well as the atmospheric, lush kinds of filler pads I like, too. I can use Rapture on any kind of music application I’m asked to do where killer synths are called for. That’s very important to me because nowadays the synthesized sound has once again made a comeback and become a big deal for film, television shows, commercials and original music albums. Those sounds are all coming back, of course, from the music and instrumentation of the ‘70s and ‘80s.” Malik sometimes mixes and matches Rapture and Dimension Pro together, as well, to create parts that are as unique to new television commercials as they are to his personal musical signatures.
“I’ll sometimes layer a synthy bass from Rapture on top of an acoustic bass part in Dimension Pro. Even when I’ve come up with something on Dimension Pro that sounds plenty phat on its own, I’ll often make it even phatter by layering that same part with a patch in Rapture. That’s also part of the process of placing my signature on every sound that ends up in a film, t.v., or music project I deliver.”
Be it music that’s quirky, synthy, atmospheric, funky or not; and be it created using equal parts Rapture, Dimension Pro, a live drum kit, a guitar, a conga, his voice—or all of the above—Malik Williams is one very talented guy who’s an active, responsive listener to boot. Just ask the countless movie execs, music supervisors, reality t.v. producers, advertising creatives and recording artists he’s worked with since the early ‘80s.
“Being able to articulate exactly what the client is hearing in their own head using just a song, some sounds and my voice is what I do,” Malik concludes. “When I hit it just right, often based only on some late night e-mail or a short piece of video, and the client loves what I’ve come up with—wow, that’s always exciting for me.”