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Grammy goals in salt & pepper

Jacob adds the spice to music

Jacob Momjian, artist, producer and sound engineer, made his return to Kuwait in the hopes of shaking up the music scene and raising the bar of the recording industry. In this interview, he discusses his journey with music, the changing landscape of audio production and consumption, and his dreams of winning a Grammy.

Arab Times: To start things off, can you give us a little snapshot of yourself and your life so far?

Jacob Momjian: I’m Jacob, an Armenian of Syrian descent, I was born in Kuwait and went to school here. I moved out of Kuwait in 2013 when I went to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Sound Engineering in the UK, I also have a Masters in Audio Post Production. I worked in the UK for a bit and then returned to Kuwait in December. I’m fresh in the scene here, I have my own studio now and I’m excited about my prospects. I have met some great people in the industry already, I’m starting to get my name out and working on myself as an artist, producer and sound engineer.

AT: How did you first become interested in music?

JM: When I was about six or seven, my sister took an interest in music so my father got her a piano and she started taking piano lessons. After she’d finish her lessons, I’d jump on the piano and start messing about. That was my first attempt at making music. In a few years, her interests diverged and she focused more on sports. That’s when I became the music guy at home and at school. I took drum lessons, piano lessons, and I played in the school band for years.  I knew early in life that I wanted to do this for a career.

I was studying at an English school and in Year 10, I had to decide what subjects to take. I chose physics and music as two of the subjects. They didn’t teach music technology in my school back then but I was lucky to have a teacher who was very supportive of the music technology aspect. My teacher, my parents and I, sat down with the principal and were successful in our persuasion. The school bought the module and we built a studio, and went from there. After me, there have also been other students who have studied music technology and benefitted from this.

AT: What instruments do you play? Did you have a natural flair for music?

JM:  I play the piano, guitar, bass and drums. If I pick up an instrument, I can figure out how it works. I may not be a master at it at first touch but I am able to learn it.

I think sometimes you just have a natural flair for this. There are a lot of musicians who are  better than me and those who play everything perfectly. But some perfect musicians are mechanical and don’t have a good sense or feel of what works best.  I’ve always had a sense of what would sound good with a particular instrument, which would work well together, which voices would fit in together, and what arrangement would be ideal. That just came naturally to me, I didn’t have to study that.

AT: What are your musical influences?

JM: Growing up, I was a crazy metal guy. I started listening to rock, heavy rock and metal. Since I’m Armenian, System of a Down was one of my favourite bands, I listened to them a lot. Over the years, I started moving towards more singer-songwriter stuff and pop rock. Today, I’m open to many genres. One of my favourite songwriters is Ed Sheeran. He is so simple but so productive in his ideas. I’ve also started listening to more rock now, like bands such as Bring Me The Horizon.

AT: What work did you do in the UK?

JM: I worked with a few artists in the UK as a freelancer as well as in several studios as a tape operator i.e. running the software for the engineer. From there, I gradually started assisting the engineer until I gained enough trust where musicians would hire me separately to produce their music.

AT: What were your motivations for coming back to Kuwait?

JM: I was working in one of the best studios in Manchester. I met with a lot of experienced musicians and great producers. I had to come back because of visa issues but I don’t regret the decision. Kuwait is a new chapter of life.

AT: What is your approach in the studio?

JM: My approach is to produce the artist to alter the song rather than produce the song for the artist. At the end of the day, it is their song, not mine.

I first request a demo from the artist, get a few ideas and then explain to the artist which direction it can go and take it from there.

There has to be an understanding that although it is the artist’s song, the producer is listening to it as an audience would. Musicians can get frustrated with producers who try to completely change their song.  I try not to do that but from the first meeting I always try to comfort the musician into trusting my decisions when it comes to changing some parts of a song. I don’t say it out of hate or disregard to their talents as musicians or songwriters, I’m just trying to get the best out of them and their performance. When I’m trying to produce music, I always have that in mind.

If I feel that I’m changing the music too much, I take a step back. I realize it is not my song, therefore I work with the musicians, see what they want to do with their music and what direction they are aiming at and I will implement that in the song with my knowledge, talent and my production skills.

AT: Is there a certain genre you lean towards?

JM: As a producer I should be able to work on everything. However, every producer is good at a particular genre. Sure they can work on many other genres but it’s always good to really learn one genre and put it on the table for the artist. At the moment my main genre is mostly rock.

When I came to Kuwait, I struggled finding artists and making connections. Talentshop helped me out a lot and put me in the right direction. I started doing some live engineering at gigs and I decided that I’m going to open my own studio. So, I built a professional mix and mastering studio and now I’m working on a couple of albums.  One of them is a rock album with a big artist in Kuwait, so you’ll hear something great come out soon.

AT: Do you see any difference in the audience in Kuwait when you perform live?

JM: In the UK if you are singing at a coffee shop, there is minimal interaction with the audience. It is just background music. But in Kuwait, even as a singer-songwriter with an acoustic set, the audience is more engaged and interactive. The music scene is much more vibrant in Kuwait today compared to a few years ago, so we are definitely moving in the right direction even though there is a lot of room for improvement. The general public is also definitely more open to Western music now than a few years ago.

AT: What do you think of the recording scene in Kuwait?

JM: The recording scene in Kuwait is very immature. Coming from full-blown studios where you learn how to use output gear and add salt and pepper to the recording using different equipment, microphones and techniques, I find that here it is still very minimal to the point where most people just face a microphone to what they want to capture and record it. There are no advanced techniques used to get the right sounds.

I hope to change that and raise the bar. I worked on a few projects where I wasn’t happy with the quality and stated that I didn’t want my name on it unless the party was willing to do it at my level. I am starting to assert that a lot more.

AT: What do you think have been the most significant changes in the recording process?

JM: Going from analogue to digital. What has been a big departure from the analog world is the introduction of recording in the digital domain. Previously, everything used to be recorded on tape, be it a two track or a multi-track. Today with pro-tools and other digital audio workstations, everything goes into a converter that converts the signals from the analogue to the digital domain. You bring it back to analogue if you are releasing it on vinyl, but nowadays, most audio stays in the digital domain due to the many different types of streaming platforms available.

Now the tricky bit for producers is that analogue will always have a warmer tone, a nicer sound, and a more realistic feel. But there is also a lot of digital software now that can imitate that to a certain degree. So in the studio, the decisions come down to the producer and the engineer. If you have the experience and the know-how and good converters, you can make digital sound very similar to analog.

In my work process, I still record in the analogue domain on the way in. I have nice pre-amps, compressors and EQs to get the tone right from the beginning, but I tend to go hybrid when mixing and mastering so I can have the best of both worlds with the digital capabilities and the analogue tones.

AT: How do you think our consumption of music has changed?

JM: The way we consume music is horrible now. When I was working in studios in the UK, we had gear that cost well over of half a million pounds, from mixing boards to vintage EQs and microphones. You are using all this expensive equipment to record a very high-fidelity, great sounding recording and then all of that is going out on a very low quality mp3 song file.

I think it is very bad for the music industry and I don’t think people appreciate music as much. There’s a big difference when you listen to music on your headphones as compared to your speakers. It changes the way you interact with music, you don’t feel all of the frequencies between your ears. There are some frequencies that your ears won’t hear but your body will feel and you don’t get that on headphone quality music.

People don’t appreciate how much work engineers and producers put in to use all of this beautiful equipment and get the best out of the artist. I’m happy that there is a growing interest for vinyl again and that enthusiasts will always have good systems at home to listen to good music from.

AT: Do you think we are distorting the concept of time and losing that essential live quality in music now?

JM: I think the connection is lost, definitely. But that is up to the engineer and the available facilities. I always record live rather than multi-tracks, but for this, musicians have to be good. I cannot record a band live and make them sound great when they are not tight. It is just impossible. No matter how much work and editing I do to it, it won’t sound as great as just having a well-practiced band in a room.

But when the band is really professional and practice a lot, it is possible. As a producer, I like to go to pre-production sessions with the band. I don’t like wasting time in the studio, I always go see them play live during rehearsals and tweak their arrangements at the sessions and let them rehearse that. If they’re able to come together and deliver it live, I’d always like to record that.

Another important factor is that the facilities here are minimal and to record a band live is very costly for the producer and for the musicians.

AT: Tell us a bit about the songs you’ve written.

JM: My first single was for a project in University. It was called, Over You, with a very acoustic feel. It was self-released and I didn’t promote it right. I really liked it at the time, but when I listen to it now after the experience I’ve gained, I feel I could’ve probably mixed it and produced it better.

Another song that is very close to my heart is ‘Little Armenia’.  My people, the Armenians went through a genocide in 1915, where 1.5 million people were killed and until this day we don’t have recognition for it. The song is dedicated to my people and how we overcame the misery and found happiness. We are a very strong, happy community, we bond and help each other out.

AT: What are you more focused on today – your own music or your work as a producer?

JM: I am trying to balance both and it is very hard to do so. I believe that if you want to achieve something you have to put all your energy into that one thing. I am currently working on my album and I have another project as well that is keeping me very busy.  Saying that, I also don’t think that it is fair for me to put my energy in my music when I have to provide for my clients as well. So I work on my music when other projects are complete.

When I have some downtime, I would like to sit down and focus on myself for a bit. You don’t know the potential you have until you work on yourself. I have songs ready to go,  I’ll probably release an EP.  I want an intimate album. My last year in the UK and the move back came with a lot of emotional stress so I have a lot to sing about and I have written about that. For me, the album isn’t about making me famous as an artist but sharing my experience with people.

AT: What’s the big dream?

JM: I want to be a well-known and respected artist and producer.  My big dream is the Grammys.  I want to be the first person from Kuwait to get the award. I believe in myself and that’s my target. If I don’t set up a goal for myself, I won’t get there.

My best friend and roommate in the UK moved back to Spain about the same time I moved to Kuwait and one of the tracks he recently produced got nominated for the Grammys. So it is an achievable goal if you work hard enough and recognize talent. You need to know the artist well enough to judge if he or she will lead you to a Grammy. Even though there’s no real formula for a hit, you should be able to instinctively identify songs that have that potential.

AT: What constitutes a good sound for you?

JM: For a song, I’m really looking for a good overall feel. There are a lot of songs that don’t need a top-end clean sound, they sound nicer a little rough and edgy, but others sound really good when it is really clean and polished. The final quality can be counted as excellent when you can hear the details of the recording. It is also important to not confuse listeners; you have to make sure that they hear what you want them to hear. That’s what makes a good track.

AT: What do you think of the music community in Kuwait so far?

JM: The music community is very small and there is a lack of commitment when it comes to musicians and bands. There are only a limited number of musicians so you will see one committed to five bands. You are never going to be successful as a band if you are jumping around with others. You can be the best at what you do but you can’t give your energy to all.

I also think loyalty and keeping your word are very important. There are a lot of people here that have learned from others, been mentored by them and then suddenly they just forget that person and start working with other people. Sure, people decide to take different paths eventually, but I think communication is important. There is a lot of disrespect in that sense.

AT: Are there any advantages of being a musician in Kuwait today?

JM: It’s a small community, you can rise to the top very quickly if you are good at what you do.

AT: What is your hope for the future?

JM: I just want to help create a good scene in Kuwait and raise the bar for recording and producing in terms of quality with proper production techniques. I feel that is lacking right now. So, that’s my goal. I want ride the wave all the way to the top and be known as the guy who changed the record industry in Kuwait. Hopefully, that will bring me a Grammy and put me in the history books.

By Cinatra Fernandes
Arab Times Staff

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