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Dave Mallen of Innovation Station Music: ‘I Didn’t Get Into This Line of Work to Just Set Up Mics and Hit Record’

The award-winning producer’s personalized approach has shaped some of the best music of the DMV

Three-time WAMMIE Award winning producer Dave Mallen has contributed to some of the best music of the DMV, as evidenced by the 200 plus artists whose careers Innovation Station Music, his one-stop-shop studio, has advanced. With a commitment to evolving continually as a person, Mallen notes that the next few years will be “incredibly exciting” for Innovation Station Music and its creative team, which are actively pushing the boundaries of what it means to create art that stands the test of time. 

Join contributing writer Cynthia Gross as she connects with Dave Mallen to discuss his early starts, the circumstances that led him to transition from a full-time career in IT consulting to music production, how being a Highly Sensitive Person allows him to provide a one-of-a-kind experience for clients, and what Mallen considers his “why” beyond the music.

Dave Mallen in the Control Room of Innovation Station Music - Courtesy of the Artist
Dave Mallen in the Control Room of Innovation Station Music - Courtesy of the Artist

Take us back to the beginning. Where did you get your starts in music?

DAVE: From age 2, I’m told I was always running to the piano at my grandmother’s house. My grandmother was a trained opera singer and pianist and was probably my first inspiration for becoming a musician. She would always tell me to “play with feeling”, and to this day, I try to inject as much emotion into the music I play and produce.

When I started taking piano lessons around age 5, I absolutely hated them. Why am I playing this boring stuff? I wanted to play Rock and Roll – the music I had become enamored with listening to my parents’ records from the 50’s and 60’s. And so I did – I would come home from school every day and practice emulating what I heard on those records. By not being beholden to the notes on the page, I developed a keen ear and a facility for creating my own compositions.

I’m someone who always has to keep learning and growing, so a few years later, I picked up guitar – this time with no lessons at all. I modeled the fingerings I saw my heroes using on live concerts or old Ed Sullivan broadcasts I would record on our VCR and just kept at it.

One day, in 5th grade, I remember a representative from a major record label came to our school and showed us a film about the making of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” – still one of my all-time favorite albums. I was completely inspired. I decided I too wanted to record the things I was playing and devised a primitive “multi-track” recording system by playing back a piano recording on a crappy Radio Shack tape recorder and using the built-in mic on another cassette recorder to record that playback while adding live guitar. It was my first overdub!  I had no idea I would ultimately be doing that kind of thing for a living later in life.

What influenced your decision to plant roots in the DMV?

DAVE: Well, I was born in the same town as Bruce Springsteen – Freehold, New Jersey, and grew up a few miles away, very close to Jon Bon Jovi’s hometown of Sayreville. I got my start performing along the Jersey Shore (the good parts!) and in a nearby college town. It was a great place to grow up, but I always felt I would need to move to a more metropolitan area if I wanted to reach my full potential. I grew up with somewhat of an aversion to New York City, which would have been the obvious choice, but DC seemed like a great happy medium – a dynamic city with a slightly slower pace and smaller town feel. I came to DC to study at American University – initially in visual media – but ended up rounding out my studies with a focus on intercultural communication – skills that have served me well making music in a such a diverse area. After college, I decided to stay and take advantage of the connections I’d made rather than move back and essentially start from scratch.

Innovation Station Music - Studio A - Courtesy of Dave Mallen
Innovation Station Music - Studio A - Courtesy of Dave Mallen

You took somewhat of a circuitous route to becoming a full-time producer and studio owner. How did you find your way to music?

DAVE: Well, as I said, I never thought I’d be making music for a living. After graduating from AU, I took a job in the rapidly growing IT Consulting business. I moved to Fairfax, VA and got my own apartment, having a decent salary for the first time. I had the perspicacity to get a one bedroom with a “den”, which I converted into a small recording studio. It was there that I really started writing and producing my own material, and from time to time, I would record friends of mine. It was a wonderful time in my life, and I was able to balance work and music creation.

I moved to Arlington a few years later and really started playing out more. I had a short residency at the Evening Start Café in Del Ray, Alexandria and remember how amazing it was to turn a bar into a 100-person listening room with 3 hours of all-original material! I played cover gigs as well, and met some key people like Justin Sheehy (of Jonasay) who welcomed me into the fold and introduced me to some of the more accomplished touring artists and bands from the DC area. This was another inflection point for me, as performing, writing, and recording with these folks both challenged and inspired me to up my game.

As I moved into a project management role (something that has served me well as a business owner) and was given more responsibility in my IT career, I found it increasingly hard to focus on music. I knew something had to give, so in 2006, I began a 2-year online program in Music Business and Technology through the Berklee College of Music. I figured if I was going to transition to a career in music, I needed a roadmap for making that happen. Within the first semester, “Music Business 101”, I had a revelation at 2 a.m. after a long day at the office and a 4-hour gig – I needed to devise a business model built around my particular skills and passions that would be sustainable as a full-time career. What came out of that thought process was the concept for Innovation Station Music – a studio and production company that would be a one-stop-shop for artists looking to launch their careers with high quality, well-crafted music complete with a tailored strategic plan.

It’s pretty incredible to look back at my original business plan and realize how faithful I’ve been to it all these years. The plan seems to have worked out pretty well!

You’re a 3-time WAMMIE Award winner who has accelerated the careers of over 200 artists and counting. You’ve seen your share of well-deserved successes (with more to come, no doubt!). What do you consider your proudest moment musically?

DAVE: I’m proud of all my artists’ accomplishments! That’s why I have framed CDs and other mementos all over the studio to honor the work we’ve done together. If I had to pick one standout artist, it would be Mike P. Ryan. Mike has won SO many awards, I’ve said I’m going to need more wall space! He’s won the Grand Prize in the Mid-Atlantic Song Contest, and has been selected to perform at numerous festivals around the country. With a voice reminiscent of James Taylor and incredible, visceral lyrics, Mike’s albums are a great example of the kind of collaborating I tend to do. Singer/Songwriters often come to me with just a song and a guitar, and I become the rest of the band – adding piano, bass, etc. – even accordion, in Mike’s case! Of course, I’m proud to have won 3 WAMMIE awards in the past few years. It’s pretty incredible to be recognized in this way after 17 years of hard work. When I see the positive impact my projects have had on my clients’ lives, it’s really rewarding.

Dave Mallen - 2019, 2020, and 2022 WAMMIE Awards - Courtesy of the Artist
Dave Mallen - 2019, 2020, and 2022 WAMMIE Awards - Courtesy of the Artist

On the flip side, we sometimes only look at the successes of a person’s journey when there is a lot that we encounter in the form of challenges. What has the entire experience looked like for you?

DAVE: Of course, there are the normal challenges of balancing work and family life (I have 2 amazing kids now and am blessed with a very supportive wife). But most people will never know the extent of the challenges I’ve faced behind the scenes in fighting for the building and survival of my studio. I’ve had to fend off legal actions from nasty neighbors who thought having musicians in the community would diminish the character and value of the neighborhood (really!). I’ve had to convince local officials and supervisors to grant permits and other waivers allowing me to operate in my home (the county code was clearly not written to support unique businesses like mine).

Designing and building the current studio was an exercise in personal stamina and patience over the course of 3 years, and was fraught with delays, battles with my studio designer, and cost overruns. And then, of course, there’s the burglary. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, I came down to the studio one morning to find thieves had broken in during the night and stolen 90% of my equipment. It was devastating. After eight court appearances to try to convict the suspected perpetrators, nobody was ever held accountable due to technicalities and incompetence in the criminal justice system.

In all of these situations, I’ve tried to make lemons out of lemonade. After the burglary, I felt compelled to do something to “flip the script” on such an awful experience. I took a small amount of insurance money and put it into a fund for musicians who were struggling due to the effects of the pandemic. So many friends and colleagues in the DMV music community that I love came to my aid; I wanted to find a way to give back. I’m proud to say Innovation Station Music’s “Pay It Forward” Grant, which awards $2000 to at least one qualified recipient, is now an annual thing!

You have an “intuitive, empathetic, and personalized approach to artist and song development,” with the accolades to prove it. In your experience, what makes a great song and why?

DAVE: What I offer my clients is exactly what I would want from a producer and a studio – a true investment in them and their songs. I spend a good amount of time with artists and bands in pre-production, really getting to know them, digging into their lyrics and what they mean to them, and developing a sound palette that is both authentic to them but also fresh and unique. I didn’t get into this line of work to just set up mics and hit record. Being an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) means I can intuit and unearth things about my artists that they may not even be conscious of. I gently challenge them to write and perform from the heart, and that means building trust from day one and providing a safe, comfortable space. My clients often say recording with me is the best kind of therapy (and much less expensive)!

You’re known for your impressive body of work. At the same time, there’s a full human being behind the art. Who is Dave Mallen beyond the music?

DAVE: Well, that is a broad question! Outside of work, I’m a husband and Dad to my two kids, aged 5 and 1 ½. Of course, I love jamming with them in the studio (they seem to love it too), but I’m just as likely to be cheering my son on at a soccer game or cuddling with my daughter. The work I do often means late nights, but I make sure to spend quality “mind, body, and soul” time with my kids before they go to bed. At my core, I’m someone who craves deep connections and giving as generously as I can to my family and friends. I enjoy going out to the wineries in Loudoun County, VA and surprising friends and clients who may be playing by joining in on guitar. That’s my happy place.

Really any opportunity I get to impact people’s lives and connect on a meaningful level, that’s what I’m about. Music just seems like the best way to do that. I love working with people from different backgrounds, as well, and have taken on quite a few foreign language projects. I speak French, which has helped on occasion, and have just started learning Spanish with an online tutor to help me produce Latinx clients in the studio! And I will also move heaven and Earth to accommodate projects that are aimed at positive social change, whether it’s a music video/song supporting women’s rights in the U.S. or even a recent song in Farsi supporting the current revolution in Iran.

Innovation Station Music - Control Room - Courtesy of Dave Mallen
Innovation Station Music - Control Room - Courtesy of Dave Mallen

What’s on the horizon for you?

DAVE: The studio is actually expanding right now in a number of ways. We’ve been able to run more projects out of Studio B thanks to some new producers and engineers that have been doing an amazing job. We’re also collaborating with some outside producers to handle the increased demand that bring additional skillsets to the table. And I recently hired an assistant, Jacie, who is a godsend and handles most of my calls and emails, session scheduling, website updates, and more. She started out as a client and is a fantastic artist in her own right, so it was a perfect fit all around!

Having the additional resources on board allows me to devote more time to being strategic and upgrading the tools and infrastructure of the studio. We’ve just integrated some bleeding-edge technology in the Flock Audio Patch system, which is a digitally controlled analog patchbay that allows our high-end compressors, EQs, and other processors to be patched into the signal path from any room in the studio. We’ve also just implemented remote-controlled motorized mic stands to get the ideal placement on guitar cabinets and kick drums, for example, while never leaving the “sweet spot” of the mix position. One of my passions is making sure the studio is super ergonomic and set up for creative flow. So this isn’t just cool tech, it’s making it easier for us to create quickly at the highest level of sound quality. With all of this in the works, I think the next few years at Innovation Station Music are going to be incredibly exciting!

Follow Dave Mallen’s journey and learn more at www.innovationstationmusic.com.

Cynthia Gross

Cynthia Gross is a freelance writer and award-winning spiritual pop artist based in Maryland. With more than a decade of experience as an executive ghostwriter, she understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.

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