Exciting sounds

Self-made producer Dave Middleton helps Sacramento find its voice

Dave Middleton can’t scream, but he can engineer your next album without leaving this chair.

Dave Middleton can’t scream, but he can engineer your next album without leaving this chair.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“This is going to be a damned dorky interview, my friend,” announced Dave Middleton. It was a chilly December evening, and we were sitting under a spire-like heat lamp on the porch of the Golden Bear. It was loud inside; it was cold outside. And, we soon realized, it was loud outside, too. Music blared from overhead speakers. We could see our breath as we chatted.

Middleton looks like the boy next-door: mild-mannered with wire-frame glasses and a barbershop haircut. Middleton is an unassuming musical savant. He is always smiling and seems constantly happy to be wherever he is, though he seems unsure of himself as the topic of an article.

We’re both guitar players, so the conversation first meandered toward guitar-geek topics: why guitar solos are mostly bad, the qualities of Yngwie Malmsteen (neither of us could think of one), his favorite guitar player (Billy Corgan) and the “lip pout and art-school haircut” style of current garage-rock bands and their unison-bend playing technique, or what Middleton refers to as “wankery.”

“If you have technique, it gives you freedom,” Middleton said. “Your entire life as a musician should be about choices. It shouldn’t be about ‘Can I do it?’ It’s about ‘Should I do it?’”

You may not know Middleton, but you surely know his work. Middleton has produced or engineered records for Dustin Aaron, Mike Rofé, Adam Varona, Deluxe, Steven Chance and Kristen Jones. As a guitar player and drummer, he has played with SquishTheBadMan and the Famous Celebrities, and he currently performs with both Deluxe and Scott McChane’s new band, the Ghosts of California.

After being kicked out of a “really crappy band” when it decided to go hardcore (Middleton was ousted because he couldn’t scream), he attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I actually graduated,” Middleton stated solemnly. “It’s kind of a shameful thing. You’re supposed to get a gig before you graduate.”

The talent pool at Berklee taught Middleton many lessons about songwriting and arranging. Music school instructs, he said, “but when you’re out, you realize that other musicians who don’t know anything are still way better than you.”

Middleton feels especially at home in a recording studio. “I really like arranging and being able to play instruments,” he said. “When I started, the recording was incidental. It was like a scam. It was like, ‘Oh, I can get them to pay me to play instruments.’”

He has succeeded as a producer mostly by word of mouth in Sacramento, working primarily from his Pro Tools home studio. “I felt like a hack,” he admitted. “I still kind of do.”

Nonetheless, Middleton is drawn to producing and engineering. “Chris Woodhouse [of FM Knives] is one of my favorite engineers,” he explained. “He was the first person who made me realize it was an art.

“There are exciting sounds and non-exciting sounds,” Middleton continued. “As an engineer, it’s your job to get exciting sounds.” He cited the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Radiohead’s OK Computer as his favorite records. “Siamese Dream was my introduction to rock,” he said.

“I’m a perfectionist as a producer. I like things that are built, things you could never create live. What [Siamese Dream producer] Butch Vig and [OK Computer producer Nigel Godrich] did was capture the essence of the music. They were engineers who were sympathetic to the integrity of the musicians, the creativity of the artists.

“It’s all about texture and layers for me, when you’re not hearing a part consciously, but it’s there,” Middleton said. He believes an engineer’s task is to find the artist’s identity and voice. Sacramento recording artists—and fellow guitar geeks—have Middleton. “With all of this experience, I hope to become an actual engineer at some point,” he quipped modestly.