Student Spotlight: Reid Willis
“Student Spotlight” is a recurring segment where we feature an SAE Institute student and some of the projects they’ve been working on. This week’s featured student is Reid Willis from SAE Atlanta.
Four bleak synthesizer tones descend in a chilly progression to open Radiohead’s Kid A, generating the unique atmosphere of an album that’s the aural equivalent of an animatronic hug: a pre-programmed electromechanical assurance that everything was, is and will continue to be all right. It’s a promise that the album conveys in a manner that is vaguely comforting and familiar, despite the unmistakably frigid dispassion of the machine’s caress.
For SAE Atlanta’s Reid Willis, the album –which was produced, engineered and mixed by SAE alumnus Nigel Godrich– was also an initial glimpse into the whirring, automated cybersoul of electronic music, a genre that has enchanted Willis since the 8th grade.
“[Liking electronic music] was isolating, but it was also fun,” says Willis, referring to the genre’s lack of popularity among his middle school peers at the time, “it was my discovery, it was my ‘thing.’”
Willis began to emulate the sounds of his electronic idols on a small Casio keyboard that his parents had given to him when he was 6. Both his mother, who plays the piano, and his father, a music enthusiast, have always encouraged Willis’ pursuit of a career in music, letting him rummage through their record collection when he was a curious child growing up in Lafayette, LA.
“My father had a lot of records that I would play on a little Fisher Price turntable,” recalls Willis, a middle child, “he sometimes wishes he pursued music further in his own career, so he and my mother have always been very encouraging.”
Willis’ electronic compositions became more complex when he discovered Amon Tobin in high school. One of the genre’s most eccentric and brilliant minds, Tobin’s otherworldly A/V approach appealed to Willis’ affinity for music and architecture, and affected the sophomore’s style and technique, which at that point had progressed from the modest keyboard of his childhood to a personal computer.
Following high school, Willis enrolled at LSU, where he would spend the next eight years obtaining his undergraduate and master’s degree in music composition and performance. The school had several courses dedicated to atonal and experimental music, and Willis continued to sharpen his own compositions, adding more visual elements to his growing oeuvre.
However, after LSU, Willis felt his skill set lacked the technical expertise to make him a truly well-rounded musician. After seeing a magazine ad for SAE Institute while interning at Sockit Studio in Baton Rouge, the young musician decided to enroll in the Audio Technology Program at SAE Atlanta, a move that has greatly benefitted the richness and fullness of his own work.
“Compositionally, when I’m laying out a track now and when I’m mixing it, I’m able to fix things up knowing what the overall affect on the song’s sonic qualities will be,” says Willis, “I definitely feel the knowledge I’ve gained is integral.”
Willis was partially drawn to electronic music by its lack of regional distinctions, and he creates with the same philosophy: imagining unexplored visual spaces in his mind and producing what he considers to be their acoustic match. “Not having a regional sound makes the piece more open to interpretation,” explains Willis, “you make it more your own.”
It’s in saying this that Willis addresses precisely where electronic music’s submerged trace of humanity is derived from: the men and women who imbue their mechanical devices with naked flecks of their unseen souls.
For more from Reid Willis, check out his track “These Spindly Trees” on the right, or visit his website: www.reidwillis.com
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Words: Jesse Hagen