TORONTO, ONTARIO: When Zale Epstein describes his approach to becoming a successful producer, songwriter, and recording artist, he says, bluntly, “Doing whatever it takes – just making yourself indispensable on a lot of levels.”
Zale started hanging out in the studio with artists in their late teens and early twenties when he was just twelve, and began accruing the many skills he’d put to use since in his work with some of the most well-known and celebrated artists in hip hop and R&B. Among them: Nicky Minaj, Eminem, Kanye West, Drake and Childish Gambino. Whoever and wherever he happens to be mastering his trade, however, he’s quick to point out RME’s interfaces as indispensable to his work.
Regardless of the project, the space, or artist, he’s always used his RME Babyface. In addition to being incredibly reliable, it provides continuity in workflow and audio quality. “Absolutely,” Zale says. “It’s industry standard. I’ve been using RME since the beginning of my career. I’ve known Boi-1da since I was 12-years old and he introduced me to the product early on. Before, I was using a 90-dollar interface – basically a piece of plastic. So when I moved to RME I was blown away. It came with me everywhere.”
“A lot of big producers use RME for a reason,” Zale continues; “the quality is second to none, there’s no latency issues, and the converters are phenomenal. And it’s a good investment – my first RME Babyface lasted close to a decade, which is incredible because products are made to fall apart these days, especially tech. I think the important thing about investing in any type of equipment is knowing there’s longevity in the product and the company behind it. There’s going to be wear and tear – I wore mine out, but after a decade that’s incredible. And I’m in sessions all over – LA, Miami New York – so I worked it into the ground.”
In Zale’s gig, durability, ease of use, and consistency are critical. “It’s not heavy. It fits in a knapsack… But one thing I’ve always liked about the Babyface is that it’s USB powered – it’s plug and go.” Small considerations? Maybe, “But you’re always running out of places to plug things in,” he adds.
Like anyone who depends on their tools as heavily as Zale does, he’s very dialed into the details; both the minutiae and the broader functionality of technology and the time and space any piece of gear occupies (or wastes) between their creative impulses and accurately capturing their vision. “I’d recommend RME to anybody.”
Zale only switched to RME’s newer Babyface Pro FS recently. “I used the heck out of my original RME so it felt luxurious to switch over.” As for working with GerrAudio Distribution (who had recently become RME’s Canadian distributor: “I’m doing a lot of outreach in the music community and RME has been a big part of my experience, so I wanted to get connected with Gerr and they’ve been great.”
For Zale, RME hits the mark in every way. “They’re tough, rugged pieces of gear; built to last” Given how long he used that first unit for, he adds: “That’s number one; longevity and the quality of the actual physical item. Number two; low latency – and I’d say the latency got even better on the Pro FS. Then, three, obviously, extremely high audio fidelity. Those are the most important things and RME ticks all those boxes. The Pro FS has been phenomenal. The quality’s a step up from my earlier interface. I can hear the difference.”
Of the features he finds particularly compelling, it’s a mix of improvements and well-thought-out design…
“One thing that’s super simple but I really like is that one headphone out is an eighth-inch jack. That’s really helpful, especially if you’re like me and like listening to things back on consumer-grade headphones.” Essentially, it’s the modern equivalent of chucking a cassette tape into your car stereo and going for a drive to judge your mixes. “Exactly, because consumers, when they listen to our music, they’re listening on their phone or an iPad.”
Another feature, he adds: “I like that they kept the MIDI port. That’s important. I like to use old-school MIDI cables; there’s less latency, and you don’t have to take up another USB port on your computer, which is important when you have so many different things you need to get in and out. I was glad they kept the classic MIDI functionality.”
Again, while these may sound like small considerations, RME clearly recognizes that different users have different workflows and needs, and that the last thing anyone wants – especially someone like Zale who travels so often – is to have to carry a mess of dongles and adaptors around. Granted, since March 2020, Epstein has primarily worked from home.
“When I got the new RME I made a lot of changes to my home studio. I made the jump to a new DAW, built brand new panels, and incorporated a UA Solo 6/10. Before if I was cutting stuff vocally at home, it was just for reference. During Covid, I’ve been finishing things, and with the combination of the RME Babyface Pro FS and the studio upgrade, I’d say my vocals are sounding comparable to what I’d get in any major studio. And a lot of that has to do with the cleanliness of the Pro FS: the vocals are a lot cleaner. Guitars have more depth. I’m not hearing any artifacts. Overall it’s just a cleaner, more three-dimensional experience, which is exactly what I was going for.”
Part of revamping his studio was the fact he’s begun working on his own project, entitled Spirit Saver for which he plans to release music from in 2022. “Being able to record from home and get the same type of quality as I would in any big studio with all the gear in the world was important to me. So that’s why the RME Babyface Pro FS is so important. You can make a great song, but if it doesn’t sonically sound like what’s going on in the big leagues it’s very hard for that song to win.” That’s not to say hits can’t be made with consumer-grade tools, he adds: “You’re gonna have iPhone recordings become hit songs. That can and does happen. But to compete, to have industry-standard quality, well, that’s why I gave my studio a facelift and – the new RME, switching my workflow – that all helped quality-wise.”
Cutting corners on mission-critical gear has a cost, he notes: “You’re going to spend time and money to fix problems with a lesser piece of equipment. And your interface, that’s where the A/D conversion happens. It’s your most important piece of equipment outside of, you know, your brain. There’s a reason why RME is a leader,” he continues; “they definitely don’t cut corners with quality and they’ve invested wisely in how they build their units.”
A similar statement can be made about how Epstein’s invested in growing his skill set over time…
Born and raised in Toronto, Zale started writing, rapping, and performing around age nine. “I was a very creative kid and always hung out with older artists because I just felt I could relate more to them than people my age. I didn’t have any formal training in music, other than the ‘this is how you play recorder’ that you get at elementary school in Ontario, but I just kept hustling.”
Early on, he recognized that the most viable path to making a life and living in music was to cast a wide net when it came to honing his chops in both the creative and business side of music. By age fifteen he was entrenched in the industry. “I started working with Boi-1da, making MySpace pages for a lot of artists, and working with Ritchie Sosa, who was pretty big on Drake’s Comeback Season – just getting my feet wet on the business side. Then, I started recording references and engineering.”
With Boi-1da as a mentor - and a growing profile in a scene that would spawn the likes of Drake and other hugely influential artists, Epstein was on his way. “Things really took off when Drake blew up. I was close with that circle and was in the studio for Comeback Season with them and then I placed a record, Congratulations, on So Far Gone. I wasn’t my beat but I placed it through management.”
Soon he started another project, The Maven Boys, further developing his chops as a songwriter, producer, and artist, while simultaneously studying Radio and Television Arts Program at Ryerson. Arguably, Zale had substantial knowledge about the industry, before he set foot in a Ryerson classroom, but it was important to him, even though he thinks it was “an odd time” to be studying the music industry in a formal setting: “Spotify was just about to take off. Nobody knew what would happen, so it was weird because we were in this transition period between the old school and the new school industry.
“I think it was a discipline thing more than anything. Even just things like hitting deadlines, those skills are important. The music business is complicated. You have to learn on the fly, so going to one of the top programs in Canada, having that under my belt was very helpful, especially from a writing perspective. You have to minor in English to graduate from RTA and that helped me as a songwriter and a creative.”
Zale also points to other disciplines he studied there as key to building his unique skill set, like film, scriptwriting, and advertising. “To be (successful) in the music industry you have to know how to market yourself and have more than just the skill of being able to lay down a chord progression or produce. Our industry has evolved – it’s not just about talent, you need to be multifaceted. Learning to edit video, write scripts – all that will help with everything you do if you allow it to.” That said, he adds, how you increase your knowledge is less important than gaining that knowledge: “The world is changing and evolving so fast – I mean you can learn so much just from TikTok and YouTube right now.”
While the path may differ from one person to the next, again, doing whatever it takes to make you indispensable is key. In Zale’s case, that’s meant paying close attention to trends beyond the music industry, like sustainable fashion and the Cannabis boom, and putting together partnerships between artists and brands. “Doing that made me more indispensable. That’s the whole thing about the music industry right now; you can’t be a one-trick pony. Everyone has their own journey, but, for me, having a bunch of different skill sets, being immersed in more than music, that’s helped me get into situations and rooms with people to make things happen. Otherwise, I don’t think I would’ve had the same opportunities.”
Clearly, Zale’s versatility has paid off, both in terms of successfully negotiating the ever-changing music industry, and contributing to records that have garnered multiple Platinum certifications and hundreds of millions of streams such as Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy and JUNO Award-nominated album, To Pimp a Butterfly.
It’s not easy, Zale concludes: “You’re going to hear a million ‘no’s’ before you hear a ‘yes’. You could be working on something and think, ‘This could be a life-changing opportunity.’ Then you get the song done and, for whatever reason, it never comes out. That can crush a lot of people. I remember sleeping on a pad from a pool chair on Rockie Fresh‘s floor for two months when we were recording his stuff, but he took me to meet another artist and I was able to play some music on their album that ended up as a big cut for me. When you’re working with an artist you need to be able to be willing to take every opportunity. You have to be able to miss things in your social life. It’s competitive and mentally draining.”
In other words, essentially, you need to be like your go-to gear – rugged, flexible, and rock-solid reliable.