In conversation with Davide Sgualdini: music producer and sound engineer

(Raffaella Mezzanzanica)

Davide Sgualdini is a sound engineer, producer, web designer, translator and IT Audio/Video technician.

During his career, he has mixed and mastered albums and singles of several world-renowned artists such as: Antoine Fafard, Gary Husband, Dave Weckl, Terry Bozzio, Simon Phillips, Gavin Harrison, Vinnie Colaiuta, Chad Wackerman, Todd Sucherman, Jerry Goodman, Scott Henderson.

As a freelancer he also had the chance to work with plenty of local and international artists such as: Eric Burdon (The Animals), Robert Randolph and The Family Band, Roger Glover and Jon Lord (Deep Purple), Sarah Jane Morris.

In addition to his mixing and mastering work for international artists, Davide has followed several local bands, giving them advice and a direction, so that they could get the best out of their music careers.

During our Skype call, we talked about his collaboration with Antoine Fafard, his work on “Chemical Reactions”, the sessions with Simon Phillips at Peter Gabriel’s studios and the reason why it’s important to put the spotlight also on who’s usually “behind the stage”.

Q.: We’re going to talk deeply about your work as music producer and sound engineer. However, you have been involved in many activities related to the entertainment business (videogames, photography, web design). How and when did you start?

D.S.: This is a “spark” in my family. I think it really comes from my blood. If you do a search on “Sgualdini”, you will find people in photography, including my brother, my cousins, journalists in the music industry, musicians. Let’s say it comes from how we are. It is in our DNA. Everyone ended up doing this kind of things, at least as a hobby. As far as technology is concerned, I owe a lot to my father, because he has always believed very much in technology and this has allowed me to grow up with the latest generation of home computers. We have always tried to use them not just to play. I think this has led me to have the ability to easily learn by myself. I have to thank my father for this.

Q.: What do you think were the most important work experiences for you and for your professional growth?

D.S.: There is a specific event in music that, for me, was like earning a university and a PhD degree all together. It’s represented by the rock opera “Checkmate”, composed, played and recorded by me, together with my brother and other artists. That album was released in 2014. It isn’t a common album. In fact, there are 110 minutes of music split in 37 tracks, two full CDs and interpreted by a dozen singers and various musicians. It is a very complex music product. That project took me almost ten years to complete. In those ten years I had to learn to improve myself applying new techniques and technologies. When I finished that project I felt like being in a position to be able to say: “OK. I’ve graduated. Now I can do this work for other people who are not just friends, acquaintances or local artists”. My collaboration with Antoine Fafard started not so long after that.

[In terms of “complexity”, you and Antoine have really found each other!”]

D.S.: The complexity of Antoine Fafard’s music is also far beyond my skills. However, I think that his compositions are also so great because, despite the fact of being extremely complex, they simply flow. This means that you can easily listen to them. Sure, you also must be used to listen to some  prog, fusion, jazz. A person who usually listens to rap cannot listen to his music easily. But if you have the will to listen to it, you can do it. It is music without vocals. Instrumental music is already a small niche. This means that the number of listeners to such complex music is further reduced. Hip hop artists, for example, don’t work much on melodies or arrangements but their focus is on the vocal parts. As a result, listening to a jazz album and more broadly to instrumental music which is based on melody and rhythmic progression means having to listen to the opposite of what’s considered “mainstream”. There is also no repetitive beat. I normally wouldn’t go looking for this type of music but I can easily listen to Fafard’s compositions. He is definitely very much appreciated by the “niche” community that listens to his music. And there are people all over the world listening to his music. His music for drummers is something extremely complex but also extremely gratifying. This is the reason why, many times, drummers are asking to collaborate with him and not the opposite. The music he writes is a “fertile ground” for drummers who often cannot express themselves so much, in other music genres. Antoine Fafard’s albums are recorded in an impeccable way, with performances of the highest level. This happens also because he never has a tight schedule. In large productions, the artist often has only a few days to do everything. This is not the case with Antoine. For example, we are already working on the next albums. Because of this, drummers have all the time they want and can really express themselves at their best.

Checkmate (2014) – Studio LaMorte

Q.: Are there any similarities or points of contact between the world of video games and music, in addition to the fact that they are both very complex and have a large number of followers/fans?

D.S.: I have a very technical vision of how to make a song, an album, and, generally speaking, a musical product. From my point of view, you have to go step by step. From the first composition to the complete song, there are steps that you have to follow. In my opinion, there are the same, identical steps in creating a video game. There is the creativity, which means to come up with an interesting idea. The next step is the development of that idea. In the case of music, it’s almost all focused on sound, while in the case of video games there are so many aspects to put together: game design, graphic design, sound design and the music itself. All these things add up to create the final product which is the video game. This means that video games also include a musical product, and sounds. In both music and video games you start with creativity and try to realize a product of some kind that other people can use. For me this is the point of contact between these two worlds.

Q.: Among all these activities, which one occupies most of your time today?

D.S.: For sure, music production and the explanation is very simple. Just like everyone else I have to pay my bills. Therefore, I also do some jobs which allow me to spend the least possible time to earn what I need (for example, I also do translations from English into Italian). This means that for one hour I dedicate to one of these activities, I can probably do ten hours of music. Because of this I can go a bit below my budget with music, while dedicating fewer hours to other activities (e.g. websites, translations and video games), still being able to pay my bills. I’m not saying I don’t like doing these other activities. I wouldn’t want to just make music anyway. I really feel the need to interact with different things and not necessarily in the same day. I need to “disconnect my brain” to give it my best, especially in fields such as music, where creativity is important. I take care of the more technical aspects related to music but this doesn’t mean that creativity is not needed. And for this reason, I need to have a fresh mind. Those who work only with music are often forced to “speed up things”, and also, maybe to accept to work with “wrong” clients or with clients they did not have a good feeling with. My approach allows me to choose those projects for which I am sure I can give my best and those artists with whom I know I can do something special, without keeping my eye on the watch.

Q.: Just out of curiosity, what’s the origin of the name of your studio (Studio LaMorte)?

D.S.: Only Italians think about what you are thinking right now. I started working on music when I was a kid. My brother who is also a musician, is eight years older than me and he has always played since he was really, really young. When he was twenty, I was twelve and he had already started to play concerts with his group around Sardinia. And I followed them, despite being only twelve years old. At that time, like other teenagers, I was watching the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and there was a character played by an actress, whose real surname was “LaMorte”. It intrigued me and since then, I had started using it as a nickname for my characters, for example in role-playing games, where I called my avatar “Dave” and, if a last name was needed, I used “LaMorte”. Since then, everyone has called me that way and I have never abandoned that nickname.

Q.: During your career as a music producer, you have had the opportunity to work with important artists like Antoine Fafard, with whom you have been collaborating for several years now. I already know that the two of you met thanks to a mutual friend. Can you tell me what your first meeting was like?

D.S.: My relationship with Antoine is very special. We are definitely two close friends. We talk to each other every day via chat or email and this started right from the moment he was introduced to me in 2016. Honestly, the first time I actually spoke to Antoine was maybe a year later. The first time I saw him was even later in time, during the production of “Proto Mundi” and we’ve met in Peter Gabriel’s studio to record that album with Simon Phillips. This was our first “in person” meeting. Our relationship is exclusively telematic, but it seems like we have known each other forever. We have a similar way of thinking. The first encounter with him was this: very delicately, like every expert musician does, he asked me if I was interested in trying some mixes for him. I say “very delicately ” because unfortunately, in this field, it often happens to contact the wrong sound engineer, with results that are anything but exciting. Many times, it comes down to lack of time. That affects everyone, even Grammy winning master engineers. Maybe when they work for you, they don’t really give you the time you need. Given the fact that Antoine Fafard’s music is very complex, you can’t work on it one afternoon and believe that everything is done. In pop music, you can do this. In Fafard’s case, this is impossible. There are two hundred tracks to manage and it takes months of work. Therefore, it is difficult to find someone who can dedicate that much energy to you. And this is something that goes beyond technical skills. So, he “gently” asked me if I wanted to give it a try and I accepted. Back then, I had worked with rock of all kinds, metal of almost all kinds. I had also done something folk, something jazz. In his case, the idea of ​​working with such complex and particular music attracted me. I suggested to start working on a track and then evaluate the result with him. From the very first interactions I did on the music – it was a track from “Sphere”, the first album we made together – he was very satisfied and asked me to collaborate with him on the whole album. Maybe he thought that was it but from my perspective, I was just getting started. It was a track where only drums and bass were included at that time. Then he started interacting with me, together with Gary Husband, the drummer chosen by Fafard for that album. We spoke every day, to bring that project to the highest levels. A month later, we also started working on “Chemical Reactions”, which was released just this year, a few weeks ago. I actually did the first mixes of “Chemical Reactions” in 2016. I worked on them again this year but they are basically the same we had in 2016.

Q.: How has your relationship evolved over time, also in terms of freedom of action you have been given?

D.S.: During the mixes, even the new ones, we have constant exchanges. As far as composition is concerned, Antoine has a precise idea of ​​the music but, most of the times, he has not a clear idea of ​​how to have it to sound. After “Sphere”, Antoine started playing guitar on his albums and this expanded the sound possibilities of our productions. Until then, he was given the tracks ready to be used and we couldn’t work much on them. With him on guitars instead, he could send me some recorded tracks and I could freely express my opinion, even telling him to do it again because the tone wasn’t working. So there was an evolution on both sides, even on this instrument that he says he “cannot” play (absolutely untrue). This is absolutely untrue. When we’ve begun with “Sphere”, Antoine was afraid that some of my bold choices would be a problem for Gary Husband, because he had (and has) a very specific ideas of the sound he wants for his drums. Even so, he has given a lot of freedom to me, telling me that if he didn’t like the result, we could then discuss how to make it the way he wanted. I did “serious” processings, as you would do in rock music and Gary Husband actually appreciated them very much because it was a totally new way of expressing his instrument. Gary is a very accurate. He makes you understand what he wants with just one look and a few words and you immediately understand what’s the problem and how he would like the sound to be. Once the drums are sounding nicely, there is the bass played directly by Antoine, but his only request is: “Make it sound good”. The bass solos are the only thing Antoine dedicates a little more words to. In this case, he often wants a tone of a certain type. For “Sphere” the guitar parts were given to us already well recorded and fairly mixed, while all the other instruments were secondary. Therefore, most of the work was all done on the drums and the rest was all pretty straightforward. In the following albums, where he plays the guitar, it became a little more complicated, because we had a crazy amount of tracks to work on. For example, “Proto Mundi” is an album consisting of two twenty-minute songs and a ten-minute song, all with Simon Phillips on drums. Simon Phillips’ drums are made up of many pieces. There were lots of microphones, probably around thirty just for him. In addition to the drums, who is the “master of masters” of drummers, there was Antoine with his experiments with guitars and lots of other instruments. I found myself having to work on two hundred tracks per song! Luckily, after the experience for the previous album, we had already figured out how to work together but it still was a really hard job. During the production of that album, while he was still finishing composing and recording his parts, I was also working on remixes of some of his previous songs, later published on the album “Doomsday Vault”, released together with “Proto Mundi”. Antoine gave me the original tracks of these songs, and I remixed them from scratch, my own way. This helped me a lot to experiment on songs that have already been released and, above all, to refine our communication technique, the language between artist and technician. The work for “Doomsday Vault” was also particularly complex, because it was a big compilation of songs with many different drummers. Because of this, the work for “Proto Mundi”, apart from the number of tracks and the work on the guitars, was much smoother. Simon Phillips, among other things, could not partecipate much because his home in Los Angeles, together with the recording studio, burned down during a fire. The album also featured Gary Husband, this time on keyboards and not on drums and he also helped a lot with his suggestions. After that album, everything started to feel “downhill”. Antoine started calling my system “A.l.D.” (A la Davide). Since then, when there is something he needs, he tells me: “Could you do this A.l.D. for me?” And with just that, I understand what he wants and I can easily do it how he likes.

Q.: As far as “Chemical Reactions” is concerned, on which aspects have you been involved?

D.S.: Although I had already remixed a track with Gavin Harrison on drums, “Peace for 4”, the opening song in “Doomsday Vault”, a remix that Gavin Harrison himself liked very much, the sound is very different from the type of sound that he uses in all his other projects. On this album, the workflow was a bit new because, on one side, Antoine absolutely wanted me to mix the album because he knows I can make things exactly the way he wants them, while, on the other side, we had to make sure it sounded good with Gavin’s drums which he wanted to mix personally. It was a long and hard job, mainly because I did a part of the mix and then Gavin did the mix on the drums and sent it back to me. For the next album, probably, it will be easier because now I have learned to understand what he likes. This album required a lot of work, because it is very complex, considering that it’s composed of two songs with the symphony orchestra and others where there is a string quartet. It was necessary to work on it in a way that made it sound “fluid”, without having a set of songs totally disconnected from one another. To achieve this goal, both Gavin Harrison and I had to give up on a little something here and there. In prog and fusion, the single song is useless. The album is considered a whole experience and you listen to it from start to end.

Q.: Was it the first time you had to work with an album involving a full orchestra? Has this increased the level of complexity of your work?

D.S.: Actually no. I have worked with a symphony orchestra many times. I worked with a Conservatory orchestra but I also worked with the Opera House. In the past, I had the opportunity to record and mix projects in which a full orchestra or quartets were involved. Therefore, I knew how to work with an orchestra. Antoine recorded the symphony orchestra when I was starting to mix “Sphere” and heasked me to interact with their engineer to double check how they would be recorded and if it was necessary to change something even before they started the session. This experience allowed Antoine to understand that for the recording of the subsequent album with Simon Phillips, I would have to be physically present. Before booking the dates for the studio, he also asked me if I was free on those dates.

Q.: Mainly thanks to technology, it has become almost impossible to have all the artists recording at the same time in the same room, together with the producer and the sound engineer. In your opinion, is there anything missing in this process?

D.S.: Mainly the production time, but this also depends on the deadlines you have. If you don’t have deadlines, this isn’t a problem. As a musician or even as a sound engineer like me, the real missing thing that blocks the most is “immediacy”, and I don’t mean having breaks during sessions, but I’m thinking about the ability to immediately intervene on something and express it. Direct feedback, in real time. This means that the very moment I am thinking about doing something, I am already intervening and the musician immediately interacts with it. Just to give you a simple example: when you record an electric guitar the sound possibilities are endless. You can change the sound of the amplifier, move the microphones in different ways, change the volume or add the right effect. It is very difficult to describe these things in words and it would require an endless discussion. Instead, if you are in the room with the musicians, you start changing something and stop at the point where it seems that it is sounding well. At the same moment, the musician changes the way he is playing and you immediately find a different feeling. For example, in “Proto Mundi”, Simon Phillips had explicitly requested that Antoine played the bass with him in the same room. I can assure you that the bass was all re-recorded from scratch afterwards, also because Antoine didn’t really have time to prepare it. In fact, he had finished composing the album right before recording it. Simon Phillips read the score and played it the day he recorded it, that’s what a master like him can do!. Being together in the same room, they could find a feeling with just one look, making gestures, playing at the same time and each of them intervening with his own instrument. There was a greater and better expression with the drums performance, rather than having an aseptic recording. Antoine is a very experienced musician and even if he doesn’t play drums, he thinks like a drummer. He composes with drums in his mind, and he plays the bass with the right accents. However, more creative drummers such as Gavin Harrison for example, need to be able to interact. This means to play something and have an answer. Gavin is used to record alone piece by piece, but many others are not. And anyway, it’s always better to be all in the same room, just because of the immediate feedback. I am also a drummer and for me being in the same room with the band and composing together has always been much easier. Obviously, the fact of not being in the same room takes away the human aspect and all the communication that transcends the word, such as gestures and the interaction with the instrument.

Q.: Antoine Fafard told me that “Chemical Reactions” was made to give an “interesting sonic landscape on CD”. Is this an important thing to be considered while in the production phase?

D.S.: Absolutely. It is very important for me to know – unless I already know the answer, as is the case with Antoine Fafard – if the product has to be a representation of the musician, of the show one is supposed to see, or if you can do whatever you want because it is an independent project and it has to give you the best possible listening experience. This means focusing on the sound, without having to care about what problems you might have while performing it live. This album, like all Antoine’s albums, would not be easy to be played “live”, because it would be very difficult to have all those incredible musicians available, at the same time and in the same place. I know that Antoine was trying to arrange some of his songs as a “trio” formation. He always mentions it but he never manages to actually do it. The problem is not the arrangement. Actually, he even sent me some demos that work well. The main problem is who is going to play those songs. The preparation for playing a live show is totally different from the one required for recording an album, especially if you work as he does, at home, composing the songs piece by piece. His songs can be made by bass pieces recorded  with years of distance between one another. I think it would be very difficult to properly play his music live.

Q.: In 2017 you were in UK, in the studio recording the album Antoine Fafard made with Simon Phillips on drums. How was that experience? D.S.: As I told you, it was the first time I personally met Antoine Fafard. When I think about that experience it seems like it was a “single hour” in my head, even if it actually was two really, really full days. I couldn’t sleep very much, because I had to take a couple of flights at dawn to get there. In this specific case, we’re talking about a recording with Simon Phillips. To give you some background, Simon Phillips is used to recording himself and he even has his own studio. He has very clear ideas on how to make the most out of his drums. However, unlike Gavin Harrison who is very focused on his sound, Simon is very open. He records everything perfectly, therefore very few touches are needed, but if want you can still process him in many ways. Before this, Antoine had sent him my remix of the song in “Doomsday Vault” in which Simon played the drums, and he let me know that he was really impressed by the mix. In the case of the Proto Mundi session, I didn’t request any major changes because everything was already done at a very high quality. I spent most of my time shooting videos, which were later used by Antoine. To avoid hardware-related surprises, we chose to have Oli Jacobs, a resident technician who worked there and already knew the studio and the equipment. So, because of this, the actual time I dedicated to the technical aspects was very limited, not because I didn’t want to but because it wasn’t needed. I just asked to change the position of two microphones and added an additional one. Nothing else was needed at that stage. Everything went very well. This experience was special because I was able to do something live with Antoine and also because I met Simon Phillips. One interesting fact is that Antoine entered the studio with the idea of ​​doing only one piece – the first twenty-minute piece – but he had prepared the other two in case there was enough time. In the end, they could record all the three songs, with time to spare! These are things you have to witness to believe. That level of quality without even knowing the songs. While playing, Simon Phillips had the score placed on some of his many drums, sometimes on the third snare drum, sometimes on one floor tom and, while playing, he was reading the score and playing not just to following the beat but in a creative way and sounding great. At one point, the score fell off and he started improvising. I ran up to him, put it back on the drum and he also had the “free mind” to thank me while he was playing. These are things that can only happen with such incredible artists. In addition, Simon Phillips had just arrived from Los Angeles and had an enormous jet lag. Despite this, he never wanted to stop, not even for lunches. A truly special experience.

Q.: When I first got in touch with you for the interview, one of the things you told me was that you would really be happy to do it because, “those who are backstage, remain backstage”. Why does it happen? What are the reasons why sound engineers, light engineers, set designers don’t have the attention they deserve?

D.S.: That is what I think. Let’s take pop music as an example. There are two options: the band has the name of the singer, or, in any case, everyone knows the name of the singer, at most the name of the guitarist. The rest of the musicians, bassist, drummer – the ones who actually play the foundation on which guitar and vocals are played – those are not usually considered. And they are on the stage with the singer and the guitarist! We are behind the stage or in front of it, in the case of the FOH sound engineer. So, who can see us? There is no spotlight on us. This also happens in prog or fusion, where the listeners are a bit more educated, both musically and on the whole music process. For example, on the previous album with Antoine Fafard, “Borromean Odyssey”, I read a lot of comments from people who congratulated on the music but also a lot of comments addressed to Todd Sucherman (the drummer of that album) referring to the sound of the drums. Yes, he recorded the drums directly with his technician but I did the mixing, I gave him the sound. In that case, the question should not be addressed to the artist who played the instrument but to those who recorded and mixed it. This proves that, even a more educated public often forgets the existence of people who act as a link to achieve that result. Sometimes it happens that even important artists want to always have the same sound even when they change studio, technicians, equipment. In reality, everything changes. For singers, even recording on a different day can change the final result. When I record singers, I try to do at least the main parts on the same day, in the same session. The voice is very sensitive to changes. It happens to hear musicians who claim to have the same equipment as a famous artist but are unable to achieve the same effect. The reason? “You’re not him!” This applies to the musician, but also to those who are there to record. This also happens in theater plays. You will never know the names of the entire cast, maybe you will remember the name of the conductor, but not any other. I think that music like Fafard’s is the closest thing to “sophisticated” music. I am very happy to be able to mix his works, also because this type of music isn’t supposed to be listened on any phone while walking in the streets. We know that the listeners will give it the maximum attention, using really good equipment, experiencing it as fully as possible. I can give it my best shot, and I know that someone will notice that.  Yes, many do not know that I’m behind it, or maybe they don’t even bother thinking about it, however, I’m pleased that my work is being appreciated.

Q.: You also work with Italian emerging artists. Can you tell me more about some of these collaborations?

D.S.: As for the emerging Italian artists with whom I collaborate, if I can I like to follow them from the beginning through all the steps. The artists I work with here in Italy are not at Fafard’s level. I don’t mean in terms of “quality” but at levels of “music expression”. They are not successful or experienced artists yet. This means that they are “fertile soil” and I can give them some advice as well as teach them something they can use in the future of their careers. I receive a lot of propositions but I don’t accept everything because, as I said before, I don’t want to commit all my time to music production and, above all, I don’t want to do things in a hurry. When I hear something that I think is really interesting and I know I can make a difference with it I decide to do it. I am happy to do it because it’s new interesting music. For example, now I’m mixing the album of a local bandcalled “Dancaestral”. They are at the very beginning as a band. This is their first real album. Before this, they only had a demo which didn’t give them the opportunity to gain experience with productions made the right way and to have hints on how to work to achieve certain results. Unfortunately, in this business, most of the times this kind of approach is not possible either because of the lack of time, or because there is no budget to do so. They really needed a guide to tell them how to work and not just someone “pushing the button”. I followed them from the very beginning of production, suggesting how to play their songs to make their sound better, even with small changes in the way of playing their instruments. We had started recording this album before the first lockdown in Italy, so we had to wait for a long time before we could go ahead with it. After the lockdown, we started recording almost every day and we are finishing now. Instead of having them go to the studio and record everything in three/four days, we took our time and with this type of approach we were able to make accurate and thoughtful choices. They have learned a lot with this experience, also in terms of how to approach the following albums they will make. Their music will certainly grow, not just in terms of their ability to compose but also in terms of their knowledge to understand what the problems could be and how to solve them. This was only possible because I had the opportunity to collaborate with them from the beginning without a strict deadline.. They came to me, they played the demos, they brought the instruments and I explained what was wrong, for example what problems they might have with that type of instruments tuning. It is important, in these cases, to take the time to explain the reasons, something that, in many cases and with many artists is completely skipped in the short studio sessions.

Dancaestral  – The Ancestor (2021) – Studio LaMorte

Recently I also worked with another group, “Inmètria”, and I even played the drums for them. It is a beautiful concept album, with Italian lyrics. They had this great music but it was without real drums in it. They only had a midi drum, played with a keyboard. So this project had great music, but no real production “value”. When they played it to me, from their point of view it was finished, but I thought it was only a demo. With their blessing, I started to tirelessly work on it. I played the drums because I like it and because I liked their songs. I also involved various artists, including Antoine Fafard on bass in one of songs. I involved guitarists, bassists and singers. When you work in the way I do, it’s easy to set up collaboration between different artists. I contacted them and after a simple phone call I had them on board. It’s easy to find the time for short collaborations. If it was about live concerts, this would have been impossible. All these artists would never have enough time. For example, it was easy to ask guitarist Michael Sommers to join this project. He listened to the songs and he worked with me on the arrangement of the sound of the guitars within the album.  We did everything in two days. That he could do but, surely, he could not have attended rehearsals for a live show, because he has his music, his projects etc. For the “Inmètria” guys was great seeing their project blossom into such an excellent product. Even if the singer, Fabio Pisano, didn’t need to re-record any of his parts (he only added background vocals to it), if you listened to their original demo and then to the album, the conveyed feeling is so different that you’d think they weren’t the same. Being able to make the adjustments immediately is very important, but so is exchanging thoughts with the artists to find a common ground. I would never be able to work with artists who just tell me they don’t like what I’ve done but don’t even explain the reason. I work very hard trying to improve the artist’s productions. And if they are local artists, I probably work even more. In the past I have worked on many live shows, but today I only work in the studio and I try to collaborate with artists who I believe are “fertile soil”. This means they have what it takes, but they need help to make it blossom. I feel that it is important to give them advices and a direction, so that they can get the best out of their music careers.

Inmètria – Ego (2019) – Studio LaMorte

Print Friendly, PDF & Email