Name: Joseph Branciforte
Occupation: Producer, recording engineer, musician, composer, label owner
Current release: Joseph Branciforte talks about two collaborative releases in this interview: Kenneth Kirschner & Joseph Branciforte's From the Machine: Volume I as well as 2019's Joseph Branciforte & Theo Bleckmann's LP1. Both are out on Branciforte's very own Greyfade label.
If you enjoyed this Joseph Branciforte interview, visit his personal website or the homepage of greyfade studio, Branciforte's mixing & mastering studio, for more information.
You can also read our recent Kenneth Kirschner interview for a deeper look into the thoughts of one of his collaborators.
When did you start with your own label? What was it about running a label that drew you to it?
I started the greyfade label in 2019. It was a goal of mine for about 5 years. I wanted an outlet that would connect all the artistic roles I play: producer, recording engineer, musician, composer, curator.
My “day job” is as a producer and recording, mixing, & mastering engineer. I’ve become intimately familiar with the album production process after working on hundreds of albums over the last 15 years. greyfade is my attempt to connect that experience with a more specific set of aesthetic & creative goals. The musical universe is intentionally narrow: process-based works, algorithmic composition, electronic & acoustic minimalism, alternate tuning systems.
I've been really enjoying trying my hand at the package design & distribution aspects all well.
How do you see the role of labels in the creative process? What is the scope and what are the limitations of what you are capable of doing?
A great label is like a little oasis of aesthetic experience. It can frame a musical ecosystem, drawing connections between individual artists, compositional techniques, geographical locations, and history. I think of it almost like a well-curated little art gallery, somewhere you can pop in regularly and gradually discover a whole network of related artists and ideas.
Whom do you feel your obligation to – the artists, the buyers, your own demands in terms of quality?
When assessing projects for the label, I ask myself three questions: “Is this a record I would be excited to own? Is the specific intersection of composition, production, album sequencing, and design offering me something I can’t get anywhere else? Is this music I can imagine listening to in 20 years?” If the answer to these is yes, then that’s a very good start. If I’m truly excited about the project, then I feel I have something to offer both artist and listener.
What was your first recording-related job - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I’ve always been completely freelance as an engineer. I never came up through a commercial studio system and am largely self-taught, for better and/or worse.
I learned the ropes at first through making my own music — trial and a lot of error. Eventually, in my early 20s, I started reaching out to musicians I admired in New York and offering to record their live concerts for free, just for the practice. Before I knew it, musicians started hiring me to record their gigs and, later, some of their studio albums … people like Tim Berne, Ben Monder, Vijay Iyer. It’s continued to expand outward over the last 10 years into all kinds of different production roles and genres. Last year I finally built my own studio, which includes recording, mixing, and mastering under one roof. That has given me the ability to say yes to a lot of really interesting stuff.
My influences as an engineer & producer are all over the map — from super creative indie and electronic music production, to the more austere audiophile approach of certain jazz and classical labels. It’s all about discovering what’s right for each particular artist and project — for me, that means having a very wide sonic palette to draw from and the restraint to be able to apply it appropriately.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
One of the greatest ongoing challenges for me has been finding the balance between my studio life and my own creative output. Given how busy I am in the studio almost all the time, it has sometimes been hard to carve out the necessary mental space to devote to my own work, and to decide on what “my own work” is going to be.
Some people naturally have their “thing” — be it an instrument, a technical role they embrace, or a certain aesthetic. It’s never been that easy for me. I have such a huge appetite and appreciation for so many types of music that it has been difficult at times to narrow my focus. It’s required a self-conscious act of discipline for me to commit to the musical directions I’ve ended up pursuing.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I’m not a great believer in the idea of “one’s own voice” as a discrete artistic goal. Originality may be perceived by others or it may not, that’s not really my primary concern. I try to focus on doing the work. The learning is ongoing.
Emulation of those we admire is inevitable at all stages — perhaps we eventually get better at disguising it.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I began playing drums at 9 or 10 years old, playing in garage bands, studying with a local teacher. By high school, I found myself wanting to contribute more to the songwriting/composing of the bands I was in and started learning music theory and piano, which eventually led to studying jazz and classical music. Eventually I got into recording — a little Behringer mixer, a Korg digital 16-track, a couple mics — and from that point forward I would say that the recorded medium has become my primary instrument.
I could talk about gear all day. I’m obsessed with microphones, outboard gear, synthesizers, guitar pedals, Eurorack modules, etc. But at the end of the day, these are really just objects. It’s the person interacting with them — their specific intention, their vision — that has the biggest impact on the end result.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Certainly I would mention my introduction to the Max/MSP software environment in 2003 as one such experience.
I took a class as a freshman at the University of Chicago on the topic of computer music, having only the most vague notion of what that could even mean. The class was filled with graduate students who were running circles around me in terms of their Max programming chops. Although my skill set was undeveloped, I could immediately sense the potential that the integration of programming and composition could hold. I became pretty much obsessed with Max and ended up transferring to Berklee College of Music in Boston to study computer music full-time in their Music Synthesis program.
So the software changed not only my musical thinking, but also the immediate course of my life.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I’ve never spent much time differentiating between these — they form a larger unity in my mind. For example, the idea of outsourcing the “sound” part of things to an engineer and the “composition” or “performance” part to a musician never made any sense to me. These are all aspects of a larger whole.
What’s the difference really between orchestration and mixing? Maybe there’s a procedural difference, but they’re both trying to accomplish a similar goal. I see an equalizer as a kind of orchestration device. Conversely, I’ve sometimes observed an engineer try to EQ a guitar part into submission, when what was really needed was just different chord voicings or registration for it to work properly in the arrangement.
That’s why I think it’s important to study all the aspects of record making, from composition to performance to production to engineering. They are all valid tools for shaping the soundworld.
Time is a variable only seldom discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
Time, for me, acts as a frame for the musical information and provides context on how that information is to be understood.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
Collaboration has become increasingly important in my output. It provides me with a specific “occasion” to make something, rather than becoming burdened with what I think the “ideal” form of something should be. The record becomes more of the documentation of a specific interaction. That’s not to say that I don’t spend a lot of time editing and refining the results of that interaction, but the scope of the project is pretty well-defined.
Two recent musical collaborations of mine have pulled in two very different directions. One is with vocalist Theo Bleckmann and the other with composer Kenneth Kirschner.
Theo and I released a duo recording in 2019 called LP1, which was a largely improvised session: Theo on voice & electronics and myself on Fender Rhodes, modular synthesizer, and electronic processing. Kenneth and I just released From the Machine: Volume I, the first in a series of recordings that explore the application of software-based compositional techniques — including algorithmic processes, generative systems, and indeterminacy — to the creation of new music for acoustic instruments. That record included the dual challenge of transcribing and arranging an electronic work of Ken’s for piano and two cellos, and recording an algorithmic composition of mine created in Max/MSP for string quartet.
Of course, my day-to-day professional life in the studio is filled with collaborations of many different kinds, from producing & engineering other people’s records, to mixing, mastering, editing, and arranging. In each case, I try to identify how I can make the biggest positive impact on the project with the limited time and budget available. Those types of real-world constraints can be challenging, but often lead to solutions I might not have otherwise considered, which can in turn be applied to my own musical work whenever I get back to it.
What are the most important conclusions you've drawn from the changes in the music-, music-PR- and music-journalism landscape? How do they affect labels in general and your own take on running a label in particular? What role do social media play for your approach?
I’ve taken on the role of publicist for greyfade rather than hiring an outside person. I feel that it is important to develop direct relationships with the journalists who are inclined to write about the records. Having done some freelance music writing myself, I can appreciate how much effort is involved in providing thoughtful coverage and how little it is often noticed or appreciated by the listening public.
Social media can also play an important role in getting the word out, but I don’t think it’s a direct substitute for an engaged listenership that is willing to support the releases. greyfade recordings are not available on streaming services, and I intend to keep it that way.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I’ve finally started to make my peace with the fact that every week is going to be pretty different. Although I can certainly see the benefits of a fixed daily schedule, the reality of my life is such that I’m constantly juggling all kinds of different activities.
This week I’m focused on a large-scale transcription project, mixing several records, finishing masters and package design for a new greyfade release, and trying to keep up with shipping vinyl orders for the label every morning. Next week, it might be engineering a three-day location recording project, mastering a couple EPs, and a few days working on my next solo record. I typically try to devote at least 2 days a week to my own music, 3-4 days a week to studio work, and fill in the rest of the gaps with all the various label tasks.
It’s a lot to juggle, but I love what I do, so I’m usually pretty excited to get to work. It means a lot to be able to make my own schedule and work on my own terms — so the constantly shifting schedule is just something I’ve come to embrace.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
For me, it’s usually sometime around 10am, after the first cup of coffee. The day’s task is defined, the setup work is done, and I’ve settled into a nice little rhythm. I would describe this state of mind as just complete blankness, complete absorption in the task at hand, a complete loss of self-consciousness.
It’s extremely important to me to have everything in the studio be patched in and within arm’s reach at this point. I hate nothing more than when I have to stop to rewire something or locate a hard drive. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through and optimizing my studio to be as efficient as possible, from tons of hidden cabling and connectivity to automated computer tasks like downloads and backups. I’ve also found silence to be pretty critical.
Can you talk about a breakthrough recording, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I like to think this recording is still yet to come.