Like many recording artists, Grammy winner Dallas Austin recently went from multi-platinum producer, songwriter and musician to hopeful consumer electronics mogul earlier this summer with the introduction of portable production studio The Beat Thang.
A joint venture with Nashville outfit BKE (Beat Kangz Electronics), the $1500 neon-backlit electronic music making tool offers aspiring recording artists 3000 sounds and dozens of digital effects with which to mix custom tracks. While the device’s actual capacity to produce commercial versus hobbyist-level tracks remains murky, compatible with Mac and PC computers, the gadget enjoys at least one benefit over traditional licensed products. Like Lady Gaga’s Grey Label line of high-tech cameras and accessories for Polaroid, it’s a far cry from the premium headphones most artists are hawking.
We recently connected with Austin to find out the reasons behind his foray into the world of consumer technology, and why the worlds of music and electronics increasingly appear to be on a crash course.
Q: Why are so many producers and artists suddenly jumping headfirst into the consumer electronics business?
A: Actually electronics companies have always owned labels. For example, Columbia was bought by Sony and Philips/Magnavox owned Polygram. So the pairing of electronics and music have been happening for a long time now, especially due to the hole that has been kicked into the music industry where music is free so the royalties are nowhere near what they used to be. Music and artists have always been used to sell the device, but when Jimmy Iovine did the U2 iPod deal it proved to work as a new forefront for that relationship and they thought “Man, let’s really put an emphasis on the device and let the artist sell it and be a part of the sale too.”
Q: To what extent are artists really involved in the design process? And can they affect the end result of such collaborations?
A: Well, there are two different types [of relationships]. Sometimes it’s just an endorsement deal. Like when Nike or Gatorade endorses an athlete, they don’t come up with the formula… they just fit the product’s marketing angle. Then you have other types [of personalities] that have really been instrumental in sound like Dr. Dre as a producer and a mixer or someone like myself. I used to take my devices apart or study how to make the sounds in my records sound a certain way. So I know how something should sound and so does someone like Tom Lord-Alge, so it’s a different dedication with Justbeats for instance.
Q: Most artists are sticking with branded headphones: What’s the reason behind creating a mobile music production machine instead?
A: Well, the reason behind creating a mobile music production machine is that it’s made from necessity and purpose. We needed something like this, something that offered as much fun as The Beat Thang, something that is really made by us as producers. My partners in Rowdy Electronics, AJA Emmanuel and Rev are not only design geniuses, but they also are young black producers, so we decide how things function based off of being aggravated and inspired. But I do have headphones and they also offer another experience, not another endorsement. My boomphones are made so that you can have an omni listening experience along with the beat machine and others can hear the music you make on it or the music that you are listening to with the click of a button.
Q: What advantages does a hardware-based solution such as this offer at-home producers over today’s leading software toolkits?
A: It’s a different sound. The box has components in it that make it sound different than three virtuals. Even the Beat Thang virtual sounds different than the box, like the SP 1200 sounded different that the MPC 60. But we also made it where the box and the virtual are packaged together.
Q: Can a portable unit actually compare favorably to traditional production studios?
A: Yes – you still need a place to record an entire song, but this is a place where you create the first magical steps. Recording studios are almost extinct as far as the console goes though, so if you have your computer and some great gear you’re good!
Q: Highlights and disadvantages of the equipment include what exactly, and what sort of musician or producer is likely to get the most use out of it?
A: Well, for one, the Beat Thang is portable so you can continue working. It also has 3000 amazing sounds in it that are already sorted and EQ’d by producers. It’s a living box so we update it from the site all the time like any other device. Some things can be better, but we have to make room for [future models]! Any producer or upcoming producer will love it because of the strings and the horns and drums.
Q: The device features a 3.5-inch LCD color video screen – why?
A: It’s basically an iPhone screen where in updates to come it’ll be touchscreen and video capable.
Q: Have any notable creations been produced exclusively on the device thus far?
A: I have used in on a lot of my upcoming records because I’m the one that had it up until now, so I hogged it while I could [laughs]. Alex 242 is my artist on Rowdy/Interscope and you can hear it fully on her release “Let Em Know.” I’ve also worked with Leona, Chris Brown and Gucci to name a few. Drumma Boy, Jim Jonsin and will.i.am are the others for now but I can’t say what they have used it for yet.
Q: What’s next for musicians and branded electronics: A rockin’ Roomba? Also… what does the future hold, and where do we draw the line?
A: Well, I don’t know if a line will get drawn as long as you are true to whatever it is you’re selling. Any product, whether it’s a Gaga or a Beats By Dre, it’s still all about convincing people that you make a quality item.”