To audition for his dream school – Berklee College of Music – Tim Liao drove two hours to sing “Pray for Japan,” a song he wrote at age 14 in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Liao, a Taiwan native who spent his formative years in Tokyo, also sang “Not Over You” by Gavin DeGraw. The interviewer handed over a musical score and Liao sang the notes by sight. The interviewer clapped out a rhythm. Liao clapped back.
“After the audition, I thought no matter what happens, I had my experience,” says Liao, who studied violin and piano from a young age and became an accomplished vocalist during his high school years. “I learned a lot just from the audition itself.”
Liao was accepted, and headed to Boston to study at the same music conservatory as DeGraw and countless other musical prodigies. Now 22, and already an experienced producer, Liao released his first post-graduate single, “Set Me Free,” a piano ballad with a neo-soul groove and intricate layers of vocal arrangements.
“My goal with this song is to share this new type of music I am trying out, and just to get my name out there as a singer-songwriter,” says Liao, sitting over a latte at a Higashi-Kitazawa café. “It also serves as a portfolio, so when I work with a certain artist or a new songwriter or producer, I can say this is something that I’ve done. When you have something released officially, it’s more convincing.”
From Shibuya Crossing to Mass Ave
Arriving at Berklee as a vocalist, Liao quickly found himself as the little fish in a big pond. Every student was the best musician at their respective high schools. Everyone brought something extra to the table.
“You are competing with all these music geeks – geniusus,” says Liao. “I just felt like everyone is super talented. How am I compared to them? I kind of lost my confidence there, but I eventually found my interest in composing and arranging.”
Liao was accepted into Berklee’s exclusive music production and engineering program. He studied under Susan Rogers, the engineer for Prince and Talking Heads, as well as Prince Charles Alexander, the Grammy-award winning engineer who worked with Notorious B.I.G., Sting and Aretha Franklin.
Working in state-of-the-art studios, Liao composed an orchestral piece for a 21-person orchestra. He arranged an a cappella version of the Hiatus Kaiyote song “Mollases,” which was performed at the Berklee Performance Center.
“I was mixing and mastering, so doing everything from pre-production to the final mastering. The whole process,” says Liao. “Being able to use all this recording equipment, the studio was a dream.”
A Tokyo Production
Two days after graduating from Berklee in December 2017, Liao was back in Tokyo working as a production manager for Syn Music, mostly creating music for film and TV.
“The tricky thing about music for TV is music comes last,” says Liao. “They always have the visual completed, and then they are like, ‘Oh, we need some sound.’ Usually we compose music to picture. It is really important to match the timing and not to get in the way of the voice over for narration.
“It’s a lot of back and forth,” he continues. “You are acting as the middle guy between the composer and the client and also other producers in the production house and agencies. They all have opinions about music, so we get a lot of comments. Usually we have to turn those into simplified musical language for the composers that they can actually fix.”
Liao recently wrote the melody for a washing detergent commercial in China featuring the pop idol group Rocket Girls 101. He sang the male lead vocals, which lyrics he wrote, for the Kansai Paint 100th anniversary campaign video featuring Manchester United. The video subsequently racked up 3.8 million views on YouTube.
Prior to last summer’s FIFA World Cup, Syn Music co-owner Nick Wood produced a new recording of his song “Passion – Brighter than the Sun,” the theme song for Kirin Beer’s Love Sports campaign. To record the song they enlisted renowned brass arranger Yoichi Murata and students of Senzoku Gakuen College of Music’s British brass band. Liao arranged the vocals for the Senzoku Gakuen choir.
“It was a big project,” he says.
The ultimate goal for Liao is to be in LA producing and engineering for his favorite musical artists such as Honne and Lianne La Havas.
“It is interesting to look at a piece of music from an outside perspective. By producing my own music, I know once you know this piece of music really well, there is a limit to how much you can challenge yourself. I think that is why you need a producer there to guide you to a different direction,” says Liao. “You need someone to say, ‘Hey, I know you guys are playing really well, maybe here you just need a little more drums.’ Things like that. The musicians are there. They know what they are doing. They know what to do. It’s more about guiding the details and the emotion. It’s an intangible thing.”
Liao is conscious of the difficulties of breaking into the LA music scene. His plan is to start out producing indie artists who have the potential to make names for themselves. Liao has already produced songs for fellow Berklee grads Njoki Karu and singer-songwriter Miette Hope, whose song “Release Me” garnered more than 80,000 listens on Spotify and 1.5 million listens on Soundcloud.
“Once people find out about them, people will want to know who was the producer behind this artist? Then I will eventually get more referrals, and then eventually I will get my name out there. And then, maybe someday I can approach Honne, saying, here’s what I’ve done, we should work together,” says Liao, laughing. “There is quite a lot to do to get there.”
Tim Liao’s song “Set Me Free” is now available on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, and all streaming services.