Brian Hazard, better known as Color Theory, is an American singer, songwriter, keyboardist and electronic music producer from Huntington Beach in California. His personal career highlights include winning a grand prize and Lennon Award in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, recording three songs for the Ubisoft Just Dance series, and having songs featured on MTV’s The Real World.
Over the last twenty-five years, Brian has crafted his own singular visions of what synth-pop and synthwave music could be. Across nine albums, as many EPs, and countless singles, Brian has imagined and evolved a soundworld where the gloriously colourful synth flourishes, uptempo drum machine funk, and expressive sentimentalism of the early eighties never went out of fashion. Far from retro or throwback, his is the work of a longstanding believer and lover who continued to groove under the light reflected off a pixelated 8-bit disco ball. As he puts it, “Somehow I never outgrew the 80s.”
In stolen moments between studio sessions and family time, we caught up with Brian to find about how he approaches playing and producing music.
You can also play the Color Theory Melodics lessons for Pads, Keys and Drums by following the links below:
- Color Theory – In Motion (Pads)
- Color Theory – In Motion (Keys)
- Color Theory – In Motion (Drums)
Who are your musical inspirations, and why?
Historically, Depeche Mode is my biggest influence. I love how they create a unique sonic universe in every song. I grew up on Depeche Mode, The Cure, and The Smiths. Later on, I fell hard for David Sylvian and Japan, which brought more of a literary aspect to my music.
Over the past few years, I’m less influenced by particular artists or bands, and more by arrangement or production ideas I spot in the wild. Maybe it’s the opening theme from an anime or something in a commercial. I think that’s because I, like most people, don’t listen to music the same way. Spotify changed all that, probably for the worse, but it is what it is.
Finger drumming and keys are great starting points for people learning about music. How do you see them as fitting into a music maker or producers skill set?
It doesn’t get more fundamental than rhythm and melody! Breaking down a song into its core elements is a great way to learn how music is constructed, and drums/bass/melody is generally enough to stand in for the entire arrangement. The piano provides the best visual model to understand high versus low notes, and eventually to learn scales and chords.
What’s your background with piano/keys and drums/pads?
I started out on the piano in middle school, played in the drumline in high school, and ended up with a degree in piano performance. While I have formal training in both keys and drums, and even have a little experience playing drum set (well, a lot if you count Rock Band), I confess my drum parts are a weak link in my production!
Back in college, I was really taken in by virtuosity. I aspired to learn all the Chopin Etudes, and I regularly listened to Chick Corea, Joe Satriani, and other technical masters. But at some point, I decided that showmanship was nonsense. Perhaps I’ve been overcompensating with overly simplistic arrangements ever since.
If you could start out again with keys and production, what areas would you initially focus on to develop your chops from?
I was exposed to a lot of hocus-pocus pseudoscientific, technical concepts that took years to dispel. Setting aside the pedals, the only aspect of sound production we have under our control at the piano is the speed of key descent. The hammer is thrown at the strings, and from that point on, we have zero influence on the resulting sound. Knowing that you don’t have to waste your time worrying about unnecessary wrist movement, “finger vibrato,” and other nonsense. So at the piano, I’d focus on making sure every finger is touching the key before it’s pressed. I used to call that “playing from the key” but that sounds rather obvious. There’s probably a better term.
With production, again there’s so much nonsense out there. Learn how to EQ and compress. That’s 90% of the battle. Multiband compression, spacial imaging, harmonic synthesis, M/S encoding, and other “advanced” techniques are generally not essential, and can easily become a distraction.
Is there anything else central about playing and production you wish you could go back in time and tell your younger self?
My biggest mistake was thinking I had to figure out everything myself. I should’ve interned at a local studio or hired others to mix my music until I learned the ropes. Instead, it was all trial and error. I could’ve really used a mentor. Keep in mind this was before you could find a dozen tutorials on every aspect of music production on YouTube. But the concept still applies. It’s better to spend a little money and learn from the best than to waste time going down dead ends.
Keep up the practice 🙏