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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

Bench Talk

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Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics


In the Mix: My Conversation with Musician and Maker, Sir Mix-a-Lot Erik Smith

Sir Mix-a-Lot. Whether you’ve heard his name on the radio, on TV or in the news, you can’t help but remember the fun and infectious beats of his classic hits like, “Posse on Broadway” or the often covered hit “Baby Got Back”. But, what many people don’t realize is that Sir Mix-a-Lot is an avid electronics geek (and a great Mouser Electronics customer!) I had the privilege to speak with the man himself about his hobby, his craft and the future of the DIY music industry.

 

“As with most DIY guys, in my case necessity definitely bred creativity..."

 

Before people knew him as Sir Mix-a-Lot, he was simply Anthony Ray, a poor, but creative kid growing up in Seattle, Washington. “As with most DIY guys, in my case necessity definitely bred creativity. As a youngster I was pretty poor, so if something broke, I'd have to fix it or let it go. Buying a new one wasn't an option.” Ray started with small radio amplifiers, moving up to high-voltage tube amplifiers. By 16 he was doing simple repairs for people, who thought he was passing on the units to a grown-up he knew. Ray explains, “I didn't really have a photographic memory, and I didn't yet understand schematics, so I'd draw the circuits out on scratch paper using similar shapes and lines for wires. I purchased some ARRL handbooks and started teaching myself some basic understanding of schematics. Then the fun began!”

Fun indeed. As a young creative with electronics knowledge, the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was an inspirational time. Musicians and bands like Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk were pushing boundaries with synthesized music. Ray explains, “Kraftwerk really had everything to do with my decision to try to create music. After seeing them on TV with what looked to be homebrew synthesizers and drum triggers, I then realized I didn't need a band and a huge studio to create tracks people would actually dance to. Then seeing Gary Numan and DEVO, solidified my belief in what was only two years earlier considered to be undoable.” In 1986, teaming with his partner Nasty Nes, the newly dubbed Sir Mix-a-Lot founded the Nastymix record label. In 1987 he had his first hit “Posse on Broadway” and the rest is hip-hop history.

In the intervening years since he first made a name for himself, the electronics world had grown exponentially, which also had a direct effect on the music industry. “When I started out I had to use someone else’s money just to record my songs. Tape reels cost $150, studio time $150-$200 per hour and a whole lot of “other”. Nowadays a kid with a laptop and a solid idea can get his idea from head to disk far quicker, and more importantly... cheaper than before. I hear so many engineers from my generation and earlier try to tell young artists that what they are creating is not music because of the tools used to create it. Those same stick-in-the-mud types drive cars that are conceived in computers and mostly assembled by robots, but the quality is far better than it once was. Are these no longer cars? Music is no longer a game reserved for the rich and/or well connected.”

With a DIY ethic, Ray was able to pave his own way into the music industry. When big label demands became too restrictive, he made his own studio. Literally, building custom mixing boards and wiring sound booths were comfortable side projects for him. “I have NO rules when it comes to producing music. Whatever makes a song right, I will try it... once mixing starts I sit some of the sounds (not fit for lead) down into the mix for ambient stuff and rhythm.”

 

 

“The hardest thing about doing something different is having the gall to believe it might work."

 

With his own studio came the opportunity to not only make music the way he wanted to, but to give up-and-coming Seattle acts a giant stepstool to start their career. “In my opinion DIY was the one aspect missing in the American Educational system. We were being taught to serve others with no real growth opportunity. We were also subconsciously being pulled away from independent thought. The hardest thing about doing something different is having the gall to believe it might work. Nowadays, there are incubators everywhere, start-ups all over the place… Just the belief that you can build something is powerful, but the rate at which these high-tech tools are falling into the hands of creative young people is beautiful.”

And we’re honored that the first place Mr. Ray looks for these tools is Mouser Electronics. “Mouser has been my go to place for parts since the mid ‘90s. I love building RF amps and things of that sort, and Mouser is my first choice for many of the parts. As I'm writing this I'm looking at a huge box of parts from Mouser for a MIDI project I'm dabbling with. I visit the Mouser site quite often lately, but I must admit I still browse the old-school-paperback catalog at bed time quite often.” Keeping it old school. We can appreciate that.

When he’s not mixing or building, Anthony Ray is also an entrepreneur. Always an early adopter, Ray has been involved in many social and tech start-ups. Recently he started a company called “True Human Interface”. He explains, “I'd like to bring tactility back to the digital world. Not in the traditional “knob on a plastic box” way but something more in tune with today. I’m not looking to take the tech out of tech. I’m looking to take tech to a more functional level. For me it’s not about tiny little touchscreens that remind you of external temp... it’s about workflow! Technology to make jobs easier and quicker. Tools you don’t think about, you just use them.”

It was a great experience getting to speak with Sir Mix-a-Lot, hear about his process and experiences from his own perspective. When I was younger, I would look up to pop icons and wonder, what would it be like to be one of them? It’s cool now to look back as a fan, and see that Sir Mix-a-lot has always been one of us.

 



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Erik is the Social and Multi-Media Manager at Mouser Electronics. When he’s not tweeting about what’s next in the world of engineering for @MouserElec or uploading videos to YouTube, he can typically be found nose-down in a good Sci-Fi book. You can see what he’s up to on Twitter: @ErikSmith80


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