Right at Home: Nicolas Farmakalidis
Moving from Cyprus to produce music in America, Nicolas Farmakalidis knows a thing or two about taking risks to pursue his passion. Find out how his decision to leave home led him to run a successful home studio producing international pop music.
Nicolas Farmakalidis was five years old when he started imitating the sound of an ambulance siren on a piano at his father’s nightclub in Cyprus. His father probably didn’t realize when he decided to take his son to piano lessons and later bought him a MIDI interface and music software for his computer that he was providing the food that would dominate Farmakalidis’s thoughts until he became a successful international producer.
Compelled to move to America after studying under a mentor, who returned to Greece after graduating from Berklee College of Music, Farmakalidis settled into Boston where he would record full albums in his small apartment and get by on a diet of dollar burgers from McDonald’s. There, he made a name for himself among local talents, resulting in several hit records, but it was on a six-month tour that he realized he had outgrown his first American city and must relocate to one more bustling with music business. Without even returning once to say goodbye to Boston, Farmakalidis hired a moving company to pack up his belongings and ship them to Los Angeles, where he foresaw greater opportunities for his artistry and his career.
Today, Farmakalidis runs his own studio in Los Angeles and is an in-demand producer and songwriter. He has worked with world-renowned signers and has written and produced hit songs, including the theme song for Ironclad and the official theme song for Autism in America. Farmakalidis has also worked on sessions for Disney shows and Glee, helping to develop the careers of many up-and-coming singer/songwriters.
Get In Media: How did you transition into working with music full time after finishing school?
Nicolas Farmakalidis: I finished with production [school], and I graduated my practical training, and I met this amazing piano player, Romain Collin, and he said he was looking for someone to mix his record. I said, “Give me your record. I want to do it.” He said, “No. You just graduated. I’ll get somebody who is professional, who has been in the industry for a while.” I said, “Just get whoever you want to get. Just give me a track. I’ll do what I think is right. You hire anybody you want, and you compare and tell me what’s happening.” And then I did the track, and he loved it, and I got the whole CD. That was my very first release. It was a jazz standards trio, piano base, and drums. I remember I didn’t have any equipment back then. I had a laptop but no microphones or anything because I didn’t have any money. I went to Radio Shack, and I bought a 15-dollar microphone, and we did the whole thing in a Berklee classroom, and we released it, and it actually did very well. That was my very first record.
GIM: Did working with Romain Collin open doors for you after that?
NF: From there, things spread through word of mouth. After Romain, it was Ian Rapien, a sax player. He came to me and said, “I heard what you did for Romain, and I want to work together.” I started working with him, but still I wasn’t producing back then, I was on the technical side. To get into production, you need the background. You need to work on a few records to realize what’s happening. I had just gotten out of school, and until you learn how to act in the studio, what to look for, it takes a while. So, I was mixing and recording back then. After that, I started working with Oli Rockberger, who is a singer/songwriter from England. I mastered his record, and the CD did well, and he came back to me and said, “Why don’t you co-produce my new album with me?” That’s when I started experimenting with harmonies and vocals and writing and arrangements. We spent a lot of time on it because we were both very young and out of school. We’d go into the studio and experiment, trying to find the right mic and pre-amp to use to create the sound we were looking for. I produced it, I mixed it, and I mastered it, and it turned out very well. I did it in my bedroom in my apartment in Boston.
GIM: Who was your first major label artist that you worked with?
NF: After Oli’s record, he got a call to play piano for these new Japanese upcoming pop artists. Oli said they were looking for a producer. I went and had a meeting with the management, and he said, “I have this artist. She’s looking to do something to shop to labels.” And I said, “OK, let’s do it.” The artist was Aika Hirahara. I did a three-track EP for her. I produced it. I hired the musicians and did the arrangements and chose the songs and vocals, everything. Her manager shopped the demo around, and she got signed with EMI Records in Japan and True Blue in New York. They gave me the whole album after that. That was my very first major label production. That record hit right away the Top 10 charts in Japan. That’s how I got into the Japanese and American scene simultaneously.
GIM: What are you working on now?
NF: I’m working on Aika’s new record. I just released a single with Ayaka [Hirahara, Aika’s sister], and that hit the charts, “Not a Love Song.” I also just found out that it is going to be the theme song for the most popular TV show in Japan. I’ve had Disney sessions. I’ve done sessions for Glee. I’ve also done child star sessions, for instance one of the children on Modern Family has some songs she’s working on. A big record is coming out in April from Palmetto Records, which is a big Jazz record. It’s a record I did a year ago, and it just got picked up, and they are releasing it right now. I’m doing a big musical. I can’t really discuss yet, but stay tuned for that.
GIM: Tell us about the production company that you started.
NF: In 2007, I started Neila Productions while in Boston. I moved the company to Los Angeles in 2010. With my production company, I look for talent. I work with promising artists and help to develop them. I have a distribution deal with INgrooves/Fontana, so I make songs for artists, distribute them, and help to get them out there.
GIM: What brought you from Boston to Los Angeles?
NF: I was on a six-month tour, and it hit me that I was done with Boston. Boston was great, but I needed a drastic change in my life. I was feeling like I was getting caught in a loop in Boston where you work in a local scene, and then you move from one person to another, and then after 10 records, you go back to the same person who wants to do another record. Boston is cool for a little bit, but the music scene wasn’t as concentrated as LA. I came to LA for five days; it was my second time in LA. I searched for a house and a recording studio. I found it and signed the papers in 2010, and I just called the moving company, and I didn’t even go back to Boston. They packed everything for me, and they sent it here, and I came back in October after I finished the tour to set everything up.
GIM: Did it take a while for you to assemble your home studio?
NF: It took me a while to put it together. As a producer, you want your own sound so you get the appropriate equipment to match your sound. There are millions of different types of equipment and millions of choices of things that you can buy, but what fits your sound is important, so that’s why I was searching for a while.
GIM: What’s a basic rundown of the type of equipment that you work with as a producer?
NF: You need pre-amps because each pre-amp has a certain color, so you need to have choices. The most important thing is the speakers. You need good speakers so you hear what you are doing and, of course, the computer.
GIM: What about a mixing board?
NF: Mixing boards, nowadays, are not so important because everything is done on the computer. I use Pro Tools. There are different Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) programs like that, but that’s the one I work with. There are others, Logic, Ableton, but the standard is Pro Tools. Of course, because I’m a piano player, I can’t work without my keyboard.
GIM: Does looking back on your struggle make everything seem more worth it?
NF: Oh yeah. I remember I was only eating McDonald’s once a day on the $1 menu. That was my food every day in Boston. I was also hardly making rent, and every month just to buy my food, I was saving all my coins, and I was going to the Star Market, and I was taking my coins and putting them in the machine, and it was giving me a ticket, and I was getting $10 or something like that, and I’d go to McDonalds. I didn’t have my own studio. I was recording major albums out of my bedroom in my apartment in Boston. It’s so funny because one of the biggest records that I did with Megadeth’s Marty Friedman was done in my bedroom on my laptop basically. It was his solo record, “Future Addict.”
GIM: What would be your advice for somebody that wants to be a producer?
NF: If you go to school, the most important thing I’d suggest is to make sure that you get the chance to collaborate with a lot of people. The main plus for a producer is to have the people skills. School gives you that, but what the school doesn’t give you is practice working with different people. Every session is different, and when it comes down to the specifics and the money and contracts and stuff like that, you have to be cautious.
GIM: Aside from Berklee, what other places would you recommend that have programs designed for people that are looking to go into producing?
NF: Full Sail for sure. Musician’s Institute is good. If a college has a production program, that’s always a good option.
GIM: Should people do what you did and have a mentor or try to network within the industry to gain experience and contacts?
NF: The networking is the most important thing. Nowadays, you do music on your laptop, but in my opinion, that’s what kind of ruined the music scene. So what I say is that a producer needs to play an instrument. I wouldn’t call somebody a producer if they don’t know how to play an instrument, or they don’t have the music knowledge, because as a producer, you have the final say for the song. So basically, you put a song out. If it’s a Top 10 hit or if it stays in the drawer, it’s up to you. So you have to have all this knowledge and all this experience to be able to say, “OK. This is a good song. This is going out. I’m proud of this, and it’s going to be a hit.”
GIM: How do you find the artists? How do the artists find you?
NF: It’s word of mouth. Basically in the business, you only need a song to just put yourself out there. The biggest mistake that people do is that they have a hit, and they are so attached to that hit that they don’t move on. That’s the last thing they do. They don’t even try to write or push it. But you have the hit, and then you have to push it to the next level to make something better than you did before. So that’s when people are going to start hiring you. My thing is this: The first song to do is easy. The second song is easy. Number three is when it gets so hard that you have to push it so much, that you have to put yourself out there so much, so you continue. That’s the number that I have. After number three, if you have number four, then you’re good.
GIM: What challenges do you face in your work as a producer?
NF: This job makes you really sensitive because your brain and ears are so into it. You work on this, and you don’t eat. You don’t think of or deal with anything else because it consumes you. You put your soul into this. The worst part is when you put your soul into a song, and then this doesn’t go anywhere. It takes you completely to a destruction point, and until you recover, it takes you a while. I’m sure every producer is like that. Say you put 100 percent into it, and it’s perfect, and then nothing happens with it—especially in this business, a lot of people promise you things. So you can spend so much time on something and be counting on it, and nothing comes from it. Then two days later, there’s another gig that comes along.
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