Mike Olson Pro/File | Composer's Intuition


Composer Mike Olson uses a Yamaha 02R digital mixer, MOTU 2408, and Avid Mbox2 interfaces, among many other pieces of gear, in his studio.

Minneapolis composer Mike Olson''s genre-defying CD Incidental (Henceforth Records), which was five years in the making, is 45 minutes long and comprises six movements that Olson built from thousands of audio region fragments that he edited, combined, nudged, and processed, using “whatever sounds good” to create a sonic landscape for each movement.

“I consider the two worlds of music composition and performance to be fully merged in my overall compositional process,” Olson says. “I freely incorporate signal processing and other manipulations of my source recordings, and see it as a natural extension of my sonic palette. Live string glissandos sound great, but they also sound great backward through a ring modulator.”

By day, Olson is an engineer whose business, Intuitive, offers voice-over and post-production services to corporate clients. His studio houses a Yamaha 02R digital mixer, MOTU 2408, and Avid (formerly Digidesign) Mbox 2 audio interfaces; a Summit Audio MPC-100A compressor/limiter; a Drawmer 1969 vacuum-tube compressor/preamp; and soffit-mounted Tannoy System 15 and PBM 6.5 monitors. Olson''s vintage synth collection includes two restored Moog synthesizers and a Fender Rhodes, which Olson plays throughout Incidental.

For Incidental, Olson created abstract graphic scores and presented them to guest musicians. “I was collecting tiny chunks of raw material that I could then manipulate in whatever way sounded right to me,” he says. Eighteen Minneapolis-area musicians appear on Incidental, both solo and in sub-groupings, including session bassist Anthony Cox, guitarist Steve Tibbetts, woodwind player Pat O''Keefe, percussionist Heather Barringer, and chamber-music ensemble Zeitgeist.

In a kind of improvisatory coaching process, Olson combined some of his own preconceived ideas about what his graphics might sound like with the performers'' interpretations of them. Olson recorded the musicians in no particular order and with no agenda as to what the final composite mix would end up being. Musicians also recorded their parts without hearing each other''s performances. To record drums, Olson went to Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minn., and used its room acoustics, Neve console, and vintage Neumann mics.

Olson then engaged in extended periods of editing, primarily using MOTU Digital Performer and BIAS Peak Pro on a Power Mac G4. He processed the audio using plug-ins within those programs, starting with a sound and then asking himself what would sound good next. “I typically used multiple channels for each instrument, with different signal processing configurations on each track,” he says. “I generally prefer this method to automating my effects, though I do use some automation on them. I like being able to drag a clip between the different tracks and quickly hear how it would sound with the different processing setups.” (See Web Clips 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 for excerpts from Olson''s six movements.)

This entire process is dedicated to creating what Olson calls a “transcendental musicality” that speaks to the composer and listener emotionally, and comes purely from Olson''s instincts in concert with the music: “I have absolutely no qualms about using anything and everything at my disposal in the creation of a piece of music.”

Home base: Minneapolis
Primary software: MOTU Digital Performer, BIAS Peak Pro
Go-to keyboards: Moog System 3, Moog Minimoog, Fender Rhodes