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Q&A with CID's Music Man Dave Olson

Q&A with CID's Music Man Dave Olson

Most of the music pieces we use in our client work are original compositions, and the man behind them is Dave Olson. He recently took a little time to answer our questions about what it's like to make music for a living, what inspires and challenges him, and how he sees the relationship between music and advertising.

Q: Let’s start with the basics. What do you do at CI Design?

I write and produce original music for digital media projects created at CID. I also create sound design elements and mix audio for video projects. I’ve been known to get behind a camera or edit video in a pinch. 


Q: How long have you worked here?

I have been working with CID for about 5-6 years. 


Q: How did you get interested in music production and songwriting?

My father is a musician so there was always musical equipment in our home. When I was in grade school I would sneak into the basement and try and hook together the audio equipment and synthesizers and mess around with sound. 

Around junior high, my dad bought me a 4-track cassette recorder and a drum machine for Christmas and my brain was forever changed. I would spend hours in the basement creating and recording music figuring out how to achieve the best sound I could with the tools I had.

By the time I got to high school, I had a full-blown studio and would spend as much time as I could recording songs with my friends and handing out cassette tapes around school for people to enjoy. My freshman college dorm room had no bed. Just a couch and music equipment. 


Q: Who are a few producers whose work you admire?

When U2’s Joshua Tree album came out in 1987 I was obsessed with the sound of that record. The textures and soundscapes that glued the music together was so deep and beautiful. There was no Google at that time, but in reading the record liner notes I discovered Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois produced this album. I immediately went to my local record stores in my hometown, Minneapolis, and started asking questions about who these guys were. 

I eventually found my way to Brian Eno’s early ambient recordings. In fact, he coined the term ambient music in the 1970s. His music and production was the glue that held together some of the most famous records over the last 40 years. Devo, Talking Heads, David Bowie, Coldplay, Phill Collins, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Johnny Cash, and way more. The list is crazy huge. If you listen to Eno’s 1992 Nerve Net album and then listen to U2’s 1993 Zooropa record, produced by Eno, it’s almost like It’s a Brian Eno record that happens to feature members of U2. Brian Eno’s music production has shaped the sound of popular music without anyone knowing it. 

What’s even more incredible is that into his 70s he’s still producing records and pioneering generative music programs that write music using artificial intelligence, which may ultimately take away my job. At least Eno, who is responsible for the start of my music production career, will be responsible for ending it. (Editor’s note: Joking aside, you’re irreplaceable, Dave!) 

Other producers I admire are Quincy Jones, Madlib, Flying Lotus, Rick Rubin, Timbaland, RZA, King Tubby, Brian Wilson, Skrillex & Diplo. 


Q: What kinds of projects have you composed music for (inside and outside of CID life)?

In 1995, during my sophomore year of college, I had my first official label release on Defective Records in Baltimore. I was floored that someone would want to pay to press my music to vinyl and excited for people I didn’t know to hear it. 

By 1997 I had started a record label called HiPass with my good friend in Minneapolis, Scott Radke. We produced and released about a dozen experimental electronic records and released them domestically in the UK. We met a fair amount of success with these records and were able to tour the U.S. and abroad playing clubs and raves. Apparently, some of those records are hard to find now and go for some decent prices on eBay. I wish I would have kept more than one copy of each.

In 2003, I met Greg Marshall (now CID’s Chief Storyteller) and Jeremy Bryan, and we formed the hip hop group Figureheads. I moved to Madison, WI to work with these guys with a desire to help and encourage people through music. Greg was working as an in-home therapist for kids with autism. We decided to try to use hip hop music as a therapy tool. The music had such an impact on the kids that the organization decided to hire us full-time to write music for kids with special needs. 

Over the next 10 years, we produced eight albums and toured all over the country performing for roughly a million kids. We received dozens of awards, and even performed for Barack Obama’s kids at their school!

At the same time we were making kids’ music, we were also creating music for the hip hop scene in general. We had the opportunity to perform with acts like Ne-Yo, Three 6 Mafia,  Brother Ali, Fatlip & Kurtis Blow. 

Around 2012 Greg had transitioned from Figureheads and was working with CID on the "It's Aaron" video campaign, highlighting several nonprofits in the Milwaukee area with Green Bay Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers and attorney David Gruber. Greg asked if I would be interested in writing some music for the series of videos. I had never written for picture before, and honestly didn’t know the technicalities involved. I had produced dozens of records but never tried music for picture. Greg convinced me that helping to tell a story with music was what I had been doing all along. 

After successfully producing the music for the “It’s Aaron” campaign and appearing in one of the videos, I fell in love with writing music for picture. It was the piece of the puzzle that I had been looking for. I had always loved making music as a supporting element, and music that would help take you on a journey. 

Since then, CID has given me the opportunity to write music for the Milwaukee Brewers, Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, Wisconsin Sports Awards, Johnson Controls, Associated Bank, Northwestern Mutual, ESPN, GE, Bradley Corp. and way too many more to list out. I love being able to come into CID every day and activate my creativity in new and challenging ways. 

The last frontier for me as a producer has always been scoring full-length feature films. It’s by far the most intimidating musical project I can think of. 

In 2016 that opportunity showed up on my doorstep. Scott Radke, my musical partner from the HiPass days, was working in Los Angeles as a music editor at a studio that mixed audio for film. They were mixing audio for a horror film and the composer fell thru. Scott convinced them that we would do the job. He called me up later that day and told me we got gig scoring a full-length feature film in Hollywood. 

At first, I thought he was joking but then the reality set in that we had never done this and I started to panic. But I remembered what Greg had said about telling stories through music and sound and I thought, "Ok. We can do this. There is a door opening and we just need to walk through."

Creating 90 minutes of music in four weeks was one of the hardest creative endeavors I have ever been a part of and it turned out better than expected. The studio was so impressed they lined up several films for us to score. Since 2016 we have scored four feature films and created music for three Hallmark movies. 


Q: Talk about the process here. When are you brought into a project? Do you work in close collaboration with the entire team?

Every project is a little different. Sometimes a project manager will come to me before the project starts and give me some context and musical examples or descriptions of what the client is looking for. I’ll sketch up two or three song examples for them to respond to and help start the conversation. 

Other times the video is completely edited and ready to hand off to me for music. Video editors will often have temporary music in video to help as a map or feeling they are going for. This can be both helpful and frustrating. It’s helpful to give a very concrete example of pacing, mood and energy. But it can also get me into a situation where I’m chasing the temp music. 

In other words, the project manager, video editor, or client gets attached the placeholder music and it’s hard to switch to something new that I create. At CID, our team is very aware of this and we’ve really gotten good at communication when it comes to music ideas so the temp music challenges are pretty rare.


Q: What are some of the creative challenges you face in your work?

It’s always hard to communicate musical ideas. Sometimes the words “energy” and “excitement” can mean something very different from one person to the next. I tend to always err on the side of being too subtle and end up having to put more excitement into a piece of music. Usually, it’s related to how many iced mochas I’ve consumed on any particular day.


Q: Do you have a favorite piece of equipment or instrument to work with?

In a weird way, my studio speakers are my favorite piece of equipment. I’ve become so intimate with the sound of them that I don’t even have to think about how it will translate on other playback devices. But it’s kind of weird to say it’s my favorite piece of equipment so I’ll say my 1981 Moog MG 1 analog synthesizer is my new favorite. It was actually made for RadioShack by Moog in the ‘80s as an affordable alternative to other synthesizers on the market. This synth sounds so heavy and its range can go from huge to subtle. 


Q: Is there an advantage to having you in-house, right across the hall from the video team vs. forcing a client to work with outside vendors?

It’s great to be in proximity to the video team! We get to engage in a back-and-forth system that makes it easy to lock in the sound, look, and feel we are going for. Sometimes when I’m writing a piece of music I just need a few seconds here or there moved to hit the cue just right, and all I have to do is open my door and request an edit and it’s done. That’s a pretty rare luxury. 


Q: What’s your take on “sonic branding?”

In the past, I’ve resisted that term, but as I get deeper into the world of music, story, and how they are connected, I see how important themes are to pulling people into the narrative. I used to get offended when people asked if I was a “Jingle Writer.” Like, “No, man. I’m a composer!” 

After taking my ego down a few notches and coming to grips with not being Bach or Beethoven, I can see that a “jingle” or “Sonic Brand” is just a theme attached to a story. I’ve written a few pieces for Associated Bank and Versiti that are 4 seconds long, and they have been some of the more challenging pieces of music I’ve ever written. There’s a great article I read recently on how Brian Eno came up with the Microsoft sound that comes on when you turn on a PC. He was very intentional about how he wanted that sound to invite you into a creative and peaceful space. 


Q: What are you excited about working on at the moment? Anything we should keep our ears open for?

I’ve been working on some music for fun with some good friends here at CID who are also musicians. It’s important for me to still make music for fun and free up my brain to write with no agenda other than music creation and art.


Q: Where can people find your work?

You can check out, and hear it on just about any CID project that has music.


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