When you come to work at Donny Domino’s DOJO45, you’re going to do more than just work on making music. That’s one of the producer and engineer’s most important philosophies about his recording studio. “Whether you came to record music, make beats or have a conversation, you should be better than when you walked in,” Domino says. “People come here to get better.”
The writing is literally on the wall of his studio in East Dallas. There is a sign above the computer that Domino conducts all his work on that reads: “Meditation. Preparation. Dedication.” Just below that is a poster with an image of Grammy awards that reads: “This is why we work.” All of Domino’s efforts for the space, which include setting up specific mood lighting, are to facilitate a healthy, organic working relationship with the artists he collaborates with. Domino feels that’s what separates him from other engineers.
“You see a lot of engineers and they’re engineers,” Domino says. “You think of an engineer as the person who is responsible for putting something together, but it was drawn up and conceptualized by an architect. I put that together. I see it and I build it.”
So far the roster of clients Domino has worked with includes some of Dallas hip-hop’s most well-known acts — topic, KoolQuise, A.Dd+, Bobby Sessions, Mga Czar, Tunk and Sam Lao, to name a few.
Lao came to work with Domino for her latest album, SPCTRM, as she was fighting through a bout of writer’s block and was eventually able to work through it and finish the album with Domino’s help.
“Donny was integral in that whole process and was absolutely amazing,” Lao says of the producer and engineer. “He’s the type of person who pushes you to be the best you can be. He would flat out say, ‘OK, that take was good but I know you can do better.’ He has an incredible ear for harmonies and vocal arrangements and I learned a lot from him.”
When Sessions worked with Domino for his album LOA (Law of Attraction), he credited Domino’s ear for music as one of the greatest motivators in the process. According to Domino, it’s another one of his assets that sets him apart from other engineers. Audio engineering is his art.
“It’s how I paint,” Domino says. “When an artist comes to the Dojo and brings me their art, I use their voice as a paint brush and I can use effects, reverb, delay and feedback to get into somebody’s imagination through their ear.”
An example of the imaginative work Domino creates for listeners can be heard on “The EXBS” by Dandii Sun. In the song a boyfriend is experiencing anxieties about a relationship his girlfriend has with a man he doesn’t know. Throughout the tense song, the Sun's voice is given a reverb effect and delay that constructs a feeling of stress and negativity before he confronts his girlfriend. Later in the song, Domino makes things feel frantic as he layers several vocal tracks atop one another at a low frequency. The method Domino is implementing is psychoacoustics, or sound perception.
But before he can begin manipulating sounds and playing with the audio, Domino needs to have all the information he can get on a song. He says it's important to get to know each artist on a personal level to not only create a connection but to understand the artist's moods and know how to push him or her, otherwise it can be “detrimental” to the process.
“It’s always collaboration. If someone is bringing me their music, that is a seed, and we have to nurture it together and I have to help it blossom,” Domino says of his process. “I can’t be overbearing. I just want to create the stimuli so that anybody who hears the song can hear what I hear.”
Domino has been at this work for almost 10 years, but he wasn’t nearly as confident in what he was doing until last year, when he decided to quit his day job and produce music for a living. During the early stages of his work, he not only had to overcome the steep learning curve associated with audio engineering but also split his time between college, working and a relationship, which made it difficult to succeed at any of those. Eventually he came to a crossroads that put things in perspective.
“The passion began to match my confidence when I broke my leg,” Domino says. “God, I just wanted to be in the studio working.”
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When Domino broke his leg, he had just met Sessions and LOA was in its infancy, but the project was already building Domino’s passion and confidence. The injury put a significant delay on the album’s production and kept Domino house-ridden and out of the Dojo for two and a half months.
“During that time I was recovering, I didn’t get to do anything. I didn’t get to make beats and I didn’t get to record anything. I didn’t even have a laptop to work with at home,” Domino says of the situation. “I just felt like my paradigm had shifted.”
It was during that time that Domino realized there was nothing he’d rather do than continue his work as a producer and engineer full time. Now he’s on a mission to work with anyone who wants to make their music better and he acknowledges that if he had followed this passion a long time ago, “I’d be much further on down the line in my career, but everything happens for a reason.” Now he’s on a trajectory that makes him excited to work.
“Anything that’s good, I just want to help it be better,” Domino says. “Now I’m more confident and, like any artist I work with, I’m trying to bring the most out of myself in my work.”