Jason Skills (of The Sound Providers) on Production and Software Development

A year ago I decided to delete all the music from my iPod.

I played with the idea of starting fresh and restoring the iPod. For some reason I could not remove the Sound Providers material from the mp3 player.

I am a huge fan of jazz inspired hip-hop production and one of my goals revolved around working with or interviewing the Sound Providers.

I did some research and stumbled across a name that I was familiar with.

Jason Skills, 1/2 of the legendary production duo the Sound Providers, had an active Twitter Account. So I decided to reach out to him and the rest is history.

Below you will find an interview with Jason Skills that breaks down the similarities between production and software development.

Okay before we get into this interview. How are you doing today and how is the weather in Utah?

I’m good. Utah is a beautiful 64 degrees today.

Describe life today as a software developer. What do you enjoy the most about your career choice?

Building software isn’t that different fundamentally from crafting a beat, or mixing a record. At a high level you are breaking things into logical parts, making those parts solid independently and then working those parts to play well in concert with each other. As nerdy as it is, I love building software. For me, it’s a fun challenge that lets me exercise mentally. I think the thing that I love the most is that it is never ending. There is always more to learn, new things to explore.

In your former life you were a recording engineer known as J-Skills or Jason Skills. Do you still utilize skills from your recording background today? If so, what skills?

I really enjoyed working as a recording engineer. It was a dream come true for me. Looking back at all that I learned during that time in my life (and I did indeed learn a lot), I think the thing that mattered the most then, and still does today is the ability to communicate effectively. In the studio you end up with folks who’s ego is on the line. An emcee who feels like this is the one shot that they will get. A singer or a band who knows there isn’t a budget to do this again. As a result you really learn to communicate and critique in a way that doesn’t diminish that effort, in a way that hopefully doesn’t damage that ego, but at the same time provides balance and actionable insight into how we (and I indeed mean we, as recording and producing records is a team sport), can push forward and be better.

Those lessons in communication are invaluable. As it turns out, a lot of folks building software are also "married to their code" in a similar way that artists are married to their work. There is an art to providing feedback, and being able to receive that feedback. This has perhaps been my most valuable lesson from long, long nights in the studio.

Along a similar vein of interaction… Guru once said "I never did that #!&@ when I wanted to get on. I gave them a pound, told them my name and I was out". Essentially don’t be a sucker. There will be folks that you look up to, admire, etc. and that is normal and healthy. Give them dap when you have the chance, but lets not assume that the admiration goes two ways. You have to earn respect, and acting stupid trying to be down isn’t the way. What you do, and how you do it, will always speak volumes into who you are. So give them dap, and then get back to work. Your work will speak for you.

That lesson has served me well in my career. The programming world has a hierarchy. There are plenty of folks to look up to and learn from. I always try to apply this lesson in regards to interaction with the upper echelon on the programming world, the same way that Guru taught me in the hip hop world.

I have lots of examples like this. Occasionally I tell myself that I should start a blog dedicated to what I’ve learned from the hip hop community, and how those lessons apply outside of it as well. I’m never sure if that would be a blog that I’m essentially just writing for me, or if others would find any value in the topic.

In September 2013, you wrote an awesome post on Capturing Good Audio. Why is sound so important and why do people still struggle with it?

Recording decent audio isn’t that difficult honestly, but it isn’t something that most people do, or think about. The problem is that poorly recording audio (at least in my biased view of the world), immediately stamps what you are doing as being amateur. You can have the best podcast series in the world, but when the audio sounds like garbage it makes it difficult to listen to, and difficult to take seriously. If you don’t care enough about the quality of that podcast to have good audio, why should I trust that you’ve put anymore care into anything else? So to me, and again I recognize that I’m probably overly biased here, if the audio of what you are doing (music, podcasts, videos, screencasts, etc) is bad, I assume the entire product is questionable.

The casual fan may not know this but you taught Audio Engineering at Full-Sail University. Describe the feeling associated with educating others on the wonderful world of audio.

I did indeed. I taught audio engineering for some time. Later I moved to teaching fundamental computer science courses (object oriented programming, etc). Teaching might be the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever done. I have friends and peers in the world today that I look up to and admire who I once had the privilege of teaching. I am fascinated with how we learn. The process and seeing it happen is amazing, and super fun to be involved in. There are lots of lessons learned from teaching as well. Not the least of which is that I don’t know everything, and don’t imagine a future where I will know everything. Once I recognized my role as a teacher wasn’t to be omnipotent, it allowed me to change how I interacted with students. I was able to see myself more as a guide (who potentially had a bit more insight and experience). When that happened I really had a great time teaching. I still speak at local meet ups and user groups from time to time just to scratch the "teaching" itch.

On your blog, Knomedia, you shared a blog post about seeking higher education. I really enjoyed the blog post because you detailed how you acquired your skills and why you decided to pursue higher education. Are you finished pursuing that degree? What did you learn while completing the degree?

I do not believe that I will ever feel that I am finished with education (while technically I hold a pair of degrees today). I hope to continue to be in the blessed state that I get to balance life, work and school throughout my life. I don’t believe that a formal education is the only, or even the best route at times. Balancing formal education with hard work and self learning is a great combination. I enjoy learning, and there is always more to learn.

I speak for a multitude of fans when I ask this. We will ever be blessed with another Sound Providers release?

Probably not in the near future. I won’t say never, but there aren’t any current plans.

Do you still have the time to crank out any beats?

Occasionally. Not like I used to for sure. I spend more and more time with the Fender Rhodes (I have an 88 suitcase with the speakers / stand built in) these days, and have been enjoying that.

Who does Jason Madsen listen to today, music wise?

I just came across Asheru’s Sleepless in Soweto LP and have been digging it. I also have crate after crate of what I consider timeless music that I listen to pretty regularly. Lots of jazz, lots of soul jazz, just fresh music. I broke out Duke Pearson’s The Phantom this morning, and have it bumping now. This record is so so ill.

You and Soulo had experience working with a record label (ABB Records). Today's music climate has changed a lot. Indie seems to be the way to go. What are some advantages to being an independent artist?

I would say that we were independent even during the ABB days. We were never actually signed to ABB. We had a distribution agreement with them, but we pretty much did what we wanted to. We paid for everything we did on our own, no record advances, etc. ABB never had much (if any) influence in the music we worked on, or who we worked with. They would suggest things from time to time, sometimes they were things we were interested in, sometimes not. We were pretty involved with the entire process back then, so it wasn’t really a typical label arrangement.

I’m a little out of the loop on what releasing music is like today. Things have certainly changed a lot from when we were releasing vinyl. I’m probably not the best to comment on the benefits or drawbacks of being an independent artist these days.

Any final words that you would like to share with the masses?

I appreciate all the love the Sound Providers have gotten over the years. We made the type of music that we loved, and it’s always grand when others value what you valued. So thanks for all the love and support.

What is your favorite Sound Providers track? Share your favorite track below.

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