Arts / COVID-19

How Philly music producers have used technology to keep creativity flowing during the pandemic

Recording studio owner Samori Coles and music producer and DJ Dan "Dilemma" Thomas have found creative ways to keep working as in-person studio sessions and events have changed.

Lil' Drumma Boy Recordings owner Samori Coles. (Courtesy photo)

As the pandemic goes on, technology like Zoom has allowed professionals across industries to stay connected as they work from home. But for music professionals reliant upon the in-person collaboration and camaraderie that comes with creating music, exploring new ways of rendering services and interfacing with other talented people has had its own unique challenges.

Samori Coles is the founder of Lil’ Drummaboy Recordings, a South Philadelphia recording studio that also offers training in audio engineering, music production and music business. Coles worked as a financial analyst for Union Pacific Railroad before founding Lil’ Drummaboy Recordings and told the business acumen he developed proved vital in helping his studio adapt to the pandemic.

When local businesses shut down on March 16, Coles and his team worked to transition as many of its services as possible online.

“A third of our students opted to take classes online,” he said. “We knew we couldn’t record everyone, so we offered a service to mix and master people recording in home studios. That kept us afloat during shutdown.”

Since reopening on June 8, Coles was surprised to see his studio receive an influx of new business and clientele. The studio’s three engineers have worked around the clock and had some days where sessions were booked from 10 a.m. to midnight.

While seeing business pick up again was satisfying, Coles knew that safely recording in his studio during the pandemic brought new rules.

Coles said that everyone has to wear a mask in a studio except for artists recording in the booth. The only people allowed in sessions now are those essential to the session, which leaves out friends and other people that artists may have brought along before. For in-person classes, all students are required to wear masks. The team labors to ensure that every surface is sanitized with Lysol.

Start thinking about a service they can offer that other people can use online.

Coles is aware of the way COVID-19 has turned life for recording artists and musicians upside down and has advice for professional musicians trying to keep their careers going. When he first started out working music as a recording artist and producer, he was an early adopter of computer-based recording and found a niche when he saw the way he could offer it as a service to his peers.

“It’s important to start thinking about a service they can offer that other people can use online,” he said. “Say they’re a rapper; they can do verses for people. The point in that is that with any services they can do online and market online, now is the time to do it. I found early on that offering that service always kept me afloat even if what I did as an artist kept me afloat.”

Willingboro, New Jersey native Dan “Dilemma” Thomas is a Grammy-nominated music producer and DJ that has worked with musicians like singer Jazmine Sullivan and rapper Meek Mill. As a producer used to collaborating with musicians in person and traveling for DJ opportunities, the pandemic has been a lesson in flexibility and adaptation.

Thomas has a Philadelphia home studio and spent much of March and April giving artists, producers and engineers recommendations on things they could buy to record at home — only to find out that popular pieces of equipment were sold out at major music equipment retailers like Guitar Center and Sam Ash.

Music producer and DJ Dan “Dilemma” Thomas. (Courtesy photo)

Fortunately for Thomas, using Zoom, FaceTime and connecting his MacBook to his iPhone messages has allowed him to still connect with songwriters and other producers that were working remotely throughout the pandemic. Music software ProTools and Logic also gave him and his collaborators an advantage in remotely creating music.

“We all have ProTools and Logic and could just share sessions,” he said. “Having your own laptop is super key so that you can self-produce a lot of stuff. If you have everything, no matter if they shut down this or that, you can still create. All the artists we work with have a Mac and get Logic or ProTools.”

Before the pandemic started, Thomas began working with pop duo Dom & Jesse and had to learn in real-time how to help them create a project with the world shut down and music resources not available in the same way they normally would be. Through countless virtual sessions over the summer, material for their first project came together.

When recording facilities like REC Philly started to open up again, Thomas and his collaborators set aside one day a week to record in person with masks. Since then, they have been working diligently at Germantown’s Retro City Studios. Thomas is optimistic that with effort, music professionals can remain productive during the pandemic.

“Sometimes less is more,” he said. “You have no choice but to be creative. This is when our superpowers kick in. It’s been hard, but I’m a positive thinker across the board. All of the things we complained we didn’t have time to do, now we have time to do it.”

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Series: Coronavirus

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