Conversation with a Creative
Misty Jones Simpson
Recording Industry Assistant Professor Misty Jones Simpson is a nationally recognized audio production expert. She is only one of a handful of female Ableton Live Certified trainers in the United States. She is also a producer, engineer and author.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Baylor University and received a master’s degree in music from Berklee Valencia in Spain, where she studied music technology and was named Outstanding Scholar. She specializes in controllers, MIDI programming, Ableton Live and pop/electronic music.
She has lectured and performed at festivals and conferences around the world, including MIT’s EMTech Espana, Madrid Music Days and the King of Spain’s Impulsa Music Forum. Her work has been featured in Billboard and textbooks.
She spoke to Beverly Keel about writing a book, producing albums and earning the prestigious Ableton Live certification.
You recently published a book. What can you tell us about it? What was the writing process like for you?
Yes, it’s called Decompressed: How to Find Joy as a Music Producer in a Flattened World. Creatives are prone to struggle with anxiety and depression, and I battle both. While this book doesn’t offer medical advice, it suggests certain methods which can help us retain a little more joy when it comes to the creative process. I started it a couple of summers ago and cranked out the rest of it during quarantine. This was a book I needed to read that I couldn’t find, so I wrote it for myself more than anything. You can find it on Amazon!
Talk about becoming one of the few female Abelton Certified Trainers in the nation. Indeed, there are only 95 total trainers in the U.S. What does that mean? What was the process like to get certified?
Ableton Live is one of the most popular software programs used for music production in the world. They only certify 5-10 trainers in the U.S. every few years, and it is a competitive process. It required a good six months of study, which culminated in a final “proving grounds” event in Los Angeles. It was probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever attempted other than grad school. I’m honored to be one of only a handful of female Certified Trainers in the U.S!
You are a role model for females in the audio production world, which remains a male-dominated part of the industry. What are some common questions you hear from female students? Do you see the situation improving for women in audio? Why or why not?
I actually wish I heard more questions in general! Female students sometimes feel pressure to work double-time to 1) compete with male students, and 2) to compete with other female students who have already upped their game due to the problem mentioned in number one. As a result, I think sometimes female students are afraid to ask questions because they’re worried they will seem “weak.” I do think we are improving in some areas. I love that there are plenty of clubs and organizations for women in audio/production, but I think we have to be careful not to hide there. I believe we should draw power, empathy and wisdom from those communities, and then go back out and integrate into the wild!
How did you get started in audio production? How did you choose your area of specialty?
My areas of specialty have evolved as gear has changed over the years. My parents gave me a little Casio keyboard when I was 10, and I never looked back! I started working up cover versions of songs off of the radio, and that led into my first “garage” band when I was in middle school. I played synths in that band throughout high school. When I got my first Tascam 4-track recorder, I started recording songs in college. That morphed into remixing when I first started experimenting with Logic and Ableton Live in the early 2000s.
Talk about some of your research, which includes trends in pop music and ties between production techniques and emotional responses. What are some things you have discovered? What are you working on now?
I am fascinated by “pop” music and how it evolves. A couple of years ago, my focus was on how dubstep has influenced pop song structure, so much so that we lost traditional choruses for a while! We are just now recovering from that influence and finding traditional choruses starting to show up again in pop songs, but it’s almost like we’ve forgotten how to write a good chorus in the process. I am currently examining the aftermath of this influence, and also starting to trace the influence of hip-hop on the pop charts as well. You can hear my presentation of some of this research at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcaHdUdhOJo
Please give us some tips on how you have been able to carve time out to create.
Not only do I literally have to carve out time for being creative, but I have to have some rules in place. I need time to create with no goal or product in mind. I need time to twist knobs and go “down the rabbit hole” to see what happens. That process is like oxygen for me; I have to have it! I believe the creative brain doesn’t multi-task well. If I try to be “creative” when I’m supposed to be editing or mixing, my creative “kid” gets frustrated, because it just wants to play. So I have to have a dedicated play time to run around and get that out of my system.
How would you describe your approach/style/philosophy as a music producer? (Also, tell us a little about what a producer does.)
The role of “producer” has morphed and changed over the years, but ultimately it is the person that carries out the vision of the artist. It’s my job to consider the emotional “goal” of the song and figure out how to achieve that technically. Effective producing is simply lining up hundreds of decisions with an emotional goal. My personal approach is to not leave any breadcrumbs for myself. When we create something we like, maybe a certain effect with certain devices, the temptation is to save that magical chain of devices so we can use it again later. I challenge myself to not do that. If I’m constantly using the same tired tricks, I will get bored as a creative, and my listeners will get bored as well.
What are you working on now musically?
I’m currently working on some remixes for a Texas artist named Paul Soupiset and also working on some new weird electronic instrumental original tunes. I’m currently into experimental sound design and fascinated with “destroying” sounds with processing to get new textures. I’m also building some new devices in Ableton Live, which is a current passion of mine.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
My dad said once said to me, “Honey, prove ‘em all wrong.” I love being the underdog. I changed my career and went back to grad school later in life, which required a lot of hustle against some serious odds. If there’s anyone out there who is considering something adventurous in life, I would give you the same advice: prove ‘em all wrong!
Who are some of your mentors and/or role models?
I was able to study under Ben Cantil in grad school, who is known in the electronic music scene as part of the duo “Zebbler Encanti Experience.” He taught me everything I know about synthesis, sound design and remixing. I tell people he is my “Ableton Yoda.” I’ve always looked up to Trina Shoemaker, who is an incredible audio engineer. I’ve also taken a lot of cues from watching Laura Escude’s career. She was the first Ableton Certified Trainer and now runs her own payback engineering company.
What do you do when you aren’t working? What TV/streaming shows do you like?
If I’m not working on music, I’m actually a bit of a gamer, which is hard for some to believe. I love the Borderlands and Far Cry franchises, I’ve played all of those. I’m a mom to two little kittens, Carlile (named after Brandi Carlile) and Bridgers (named after Phoebe Bridgers), and so my current hobby is telling them to get down off of things. As far as TV goes, I am lately in need of a laugh, so I find myself going back to Bob’s Burgers quite often, and I just finished the first season of Mythic Quest.