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10 questions with… Simone Silvestroni of Minutes to Midnight

As part of the 10 questions with series, we chat with Simone Silvestroni of Minutes to Midnight about his career so far and just how to make the break from a part time producer to a job in full time music production.

How long have you been producing music for?

I started as an instrumentalist in 1987. My sister gifted me with my first electric bass, a second hand Framus, with a Fender Jazz-style build and sound.

I learned the basics in a relatively short time, which wasn’t good enough for me. After a year with a well-known local bassist, which coincidentally taught me the arrangement method from Berklee, I enrolled in a professional school of music in Milan.

I used to co-write the songs with my first band. Around 1990 I started to write music on my own; therefore, I would use that moment as the starting point for my music production.

It was different at the time. In 1993 I bought a Yamaha QY20, which was an amazingly tiny and powerful hardware sequencer, equipped with a full-fledged general MIDI soundbank.

It was smaller than a VHS tape and could be used with batteries, and that is why I started carrying it around with me all the time. I still remember a full-page ad on a music magazine (likely “Future Music”), where John Taylor and Nick Rhodes were promoting the device.

The value of minimalism and limitations is severely underrated.

Simone Silvestroni

It might sound silly today, but that was a watershed moment for me at the time. I’m talking about a pre-DAW era, where being able to write music on a portable 16-tracks MIDI device was astonishing. In the few years that preceded my first DAW (Cubasis Audio), I wrote a massive amount of ideas and complete songs on the QY20.

One of the songs in my recently published album “After 1989”, titled “The Logic” came up during a train commute in early 1995 when I was completing my years at the music school. I transferred the tracks into Cubasis Audio through a MIDI cable in my home studio.

The fact this ancient digital data stayed with me for decades, only to turn into a modern song, is a testament to how much I always believed in my approach to writing music.

Tell us a bit about your style of production?

I mostly work with acoustic musicians, people who play their instruments at a very high level. Some are into technology, and some aren’t. I can relate to both categories, as I’m a musician myself.

I’ve been working almost exclusively on a range of genres going from folk-rock to alternative rock, some jazz/fusion and quite a lot of singer-songwriter.

My approach is not static; I tend to adapt to the artist’s needs, which sounds pretty obvious, yet I feel it needs to be pointed out. A few months ago, a young Italian producer asked for my help. He’s working on a lot of trap music — which admittedly is a mystery to me — so I initially hesitated.

I suggested a few improvements and in two cases offered to play a real bass. He accepted, and two very bizarre (at least to me) productions came to life. He published them on YouTube and got a bit of traction. All this to say that I can manage to venture out of my comfort zone and get things done, and the client happy.

after 1989 album image image on www.parttimeproducer.com 10 questions with Simone Silvestroni

After 1989: A Trip To Freedom

More recently, I spent time producing my concept album. I ended up writing, recording, arranging and mixing the whole thing from start to finish. I refused to master it because I wanted a different approach, a different ear and some objectivity. The great thing about being a producer and a musician/composer is that you can ask your clients to help with their expertise. In my case, most of my clients played in the album, which was a fantastic experience and a stunning result.

When I start a new production, I always listen to the material a few times, gathering my first impressions. Sometimes I take notes, other times, I go straight to the DAW. Usually, my first gut feelings are in the correct ballpark, so I jump directly to set up my Logic template.

The first thing I always do is the “housekeeping”: import all the audio, give it the right order in the mixer, create the sends/busses I need for the tracks, and prepare the session for a quick gain staging. Once I’ve completed this phase, I always perform a rough mix, which involves panning and volume.

That gives me the correct signals to find out which track needs my attention. Once I’m at this stage, I take my first break. It’s essential to rest my ears, not just to improve my objectivity, but also because I have tinnitus in my left ear.

My Logic template is modular, so it doesn’t load a massive number of tracks: I load more patches from my library only if I need them. I adapted Michael Bauer’s multi-compression bus methodology, so I’ve included that within the template.

I channel all my audio to four main busses (A to D) depending on their function, such as bass and percussions (bus B); piano, guitar and strings (bus A), etc.

I keep the lead vocals on a different chain, outside the multi-bus outputs: they run through five compressors, in a cascade. Each of the four main busses runs one or two separate compressors, doing light but essential work.

I finally route these busses to a stereo mix bus, where I apply a little more processing if needed. It all goes to the master output, where I only load meter plug-ins, mostly a VU-meter and Logic multi-meter.

In the mixer, I use VCA faders to control my groups, before reaching the A-D busses. I’ve recently stopped using Logic’s track stacks though. It’s a question of habit: I don’t like having a bus before its tracks.

Also, this choice is the result of extensive tests, where I found out how track stacks are contributing to a lot of CPU overload messages, whereas doing it “old school” doesn’t. Maybe it’s my machine, I don’t know, but I’m happy this way.

I only use two families of plug-ins, from Waves and Soundtoys. As I said, I prefer to learn what I have, and they work very well together in my template.

What influences made you want to take up music production as a hobby?

Besides the fact it was never a hobby, my primary influence was the Pink Floyd, in particular, their 1973-1983 decade.

I share a vast amount of the same attitude they poured into those five albums — not just the storytelling, but their methodical and slightly excessive attention to detail too. I also share with most of them the same technical studies, although I stayed clear of trying to become an architect.

pink floyd image on www.parttimeproducer.com 10 questions with Simone Silvestroni
Pink Floyd are a big influence in Simone’s techniques.

Is there a memorable piece of kit you have used that you loved/hated/wish it never broke etc. Why was it so memorable?

For sure, the QY20. I tried to revive it by opening the shell and change the chip recently, unsuccessfully. Albeit I don’t need it anymore, I loved the idea of using it as a vintage piece of kit. It had one of the best 808 drum sounds, I would have used it connected as an external device!

Before you were full time, how much time did you get to spend producing?

After I quit my job in the game audio industry, I had a stint in web development and design. During that time, I kept producing as a side activity, and the time I managed to pour into it was always variable.

Mostly over weekends, or when I formed another band and started arranging for them. I wasn’t able to keep a proper schedule though, and that’s also why I enrolled in a few courses with Berklee, besides the will to acquire new skills.

What tips do you have for others in making the most of their time?

Structure. Always organise the day, the week and some mid/long-term goals. These could be monthly o yearly targets. I had accrued a vast experience in project management, which has been an enormous help when I decided to open my own music business as a producer.

I use several tools: Trello Gold, Dropbox premium, obviously a calendar. Everything I use is pretty much in the cloud, therefore it’s easy to keep up with everything, no matter where I am and on what device.

Yamaha QY20 image on www.parttimeproducer.com 10 questions with Simone Silvestroni
The Yamaha QY20 was a favourite of Simone Silvestroni

Aside from music production, what other skills would you say are important for amateur musicians in getting noticed?

Get on top of your game. If you’re a musician, practice as much as you can. Always try to be up to date, so reading industry magazines and or blogs (I also still use RSS) is paramount. And finally, don’t try to fall for the marketing craze of “the newest and latest thing”.

There’s a solid reason why many producers don’t bother with updating their operating systems or main DAWs. I set on a specific machine, a DAW, and a very few brands for my plugins (Waves and Soundtoys in my case). I rarely buy new ones; I’d rather spend time learning what I have at the deepest level: wasting my time is something I hate.

For this reason, I don’t fall for the free plugins either: unless there is something unique, I tend to ignore every single announcement.

I know what’s being released, I know “the new thing” out there, I check the notes, maybe watch a video or two and then realise I can do the very same things with what I already have.
The value of minimalism and limitations is severely underrated.

How did you make the jump into going all in full time?

More recently, I decided to open my music business, and I just did it. My wife was a massive help with this, as I spent several months without a decent income, but I knew that I could rely on hers.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if I’ll be doing this for long because we’re on the verge of a significant lifestyle change, so I might go back to game audio and keep my production job as a side activity for a few years.

What is the dream?

Releasing a proper concept album, where I could tell a personal and collective story. I just did it, so I need to up the ante now! I’d say releasing singles and keep writing, keeping up with the direction where the music industry is currently heading.

Dead or alive, who would be the one musician you’d like to work with and why?

Roger Waters, because I feel like we would have long and fulfilling discussions, and maybe arguments, while producing great music.

Final word

Simone Silvestroni has recently released the concept album After 1989. 30 years after the opening of the Berlin Wall, it’s time to tell the tale of how a young man managed to escape Germany in 1945, while his grandson made the other way round in 1991, looking for answers that he could only find in 2017. After 1989 is available on all streaming platforms.

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