Incoming Asteroid: Adaptation or Extinction?

Short story:

1) Evolve your customer service to accommodate changing times.  2) Constantly learn and develop new creative techniques to remain relevant—if not ahead of the curve.

Long story:

I became a professional musician in 1981, at the age of 19. Like the majority of folks in this business, I’ve had my shares of ups and downs over the years. Unlike most of them, however, I’ve stayed the course and I’m still making records 34 years later.

Why is that?

I attribute it to two main reasons, neither of which is talent. Number one: I pay attention. Number two: I choose adaptation over extinction.

I’m not saying that I don’t have talent, nor am I saying that I am a chameleon. It’s a given that the record business is filled with talented folks. The ones with longevity are not those who change like the flavor of the month, but rather those with a strong point of view that does not gratuitously change with the ephemeral fashions of the times. They know how to retain their unique perspectives while adapting to evolving technologies and changes in the needs of their customers (artists, labels, et al.)

Last Thursday presented opportunities to practice adaptation from both business and creative perspectives. On the business side, I did something unusual. I offered a potential client a one hour “rough” mix. Some people ask for a free test mix to find out if they want to work together, but I don’t play that game anymore. That’s the equivalent of telling a painter that you’d like your house painted for free as a test, and it if you like it, you will pay for the job.

Nonetheless, if you want to generate enough work to make a good living, you have to find a way to inspire enough confidence in your prospective clients to have them hire you instead of somebody else, especially if you’re competing with quality as your main criterion, not price. Fortunately I’ve been doing this for very long time, so my track record helps me in this regard.

However, I encountered a grey area in which maintaining absolute boundaries would have prevented me from closing the deal and booking the job. Rather than saying, “Dude, just take a leap of faith and hire me because I’m special!,” I adapted to the situation, and put a small amount of time into a rough mix.

Let me define the term rough mix: a mix that is mostly concerned with overall balances. Broad strokes, not details… Sometimes the rough mixes end up on the finished album because they capture the essence of the song on a visceral level. They are imperfect, but can be exciting. By nature, they don’t allow you the luxury of the laboring over details, so you’re forced to focus on the most important elements that tell the story or create the vibe. A rough mix may require anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or two, whereas a full mix may take a full day or two to complete.

You might think that there is no way that a rough mix can compete with a fully developed final mix, and in many ways you are correct. That said, my workflow is set up in such a way that I can very quickly achieve broad stroke results that are 90% of the way to the goal line. I can get the basic tones and overall balances together faster than you’d guess. It’s the minutiae that takes time. Hundreds of detailed volume and FX automation moves can really bring a mix to life.  If a bangin’ rough mix can qualify for the Olympics, a fully developed final mix can win the gold medal.  Even without doing all the detailed moves, I’m confident that an exciting rough mix, in the right situation, can be a powerful sales tool.

Anyway, the new artist/client is a really cool guy who was referred by one of my trusted colleagues. Despite writing catchy songs with radio-ready hooks, he’s still an indie artist who is bootstrapping to fund his records. Thus, he was very stressed about his budget because he wasn’t sure if he needed to mix one, two or seven songs. Five of them had already been professionally mixed and mastered by some other engineers–twice!–so the thought of going back a third time was pretty nauseating to the guy. 

Maybe I need to clarify this. We already have a deal in place for mixing his newest song, and if that goes well, the same deal will apply to another new song that he is in the process of recording. A big concern is that these new mixes will sound better then his extant five (already mastered) mixes, potentially causing a lack of sonic continuity on his album. In his mind, he can imagine spending anywhere from $2000-$20,000, which is a big difference. 

Because I’ve been through this before as an artist, I can totally relate. My instinct told me that I could do something to help him sort through this. An exciting rough mix would answer a lot of questions for him. Maybe his five extant mixes/masters are already “good enough.” The best of them was obviously a cut above the other four, so we chose that one as an experiment to find out if the gains would be significant or marginal. If the improvement was marginal, he would only need to be concerned with coming up with the budget to mix one or two songs instead of seven. While any normal person would prefer the job security of having “more” things in the pipeline, I would rather commit to doing one song for an ecstatic artist than seven for a stress-case in panic mode. Happy artists equal lifelong clients.

I booked an hour before my formally scheduled session to do the rough mix. When I got into it, I had momentum and was excited to raise the bar. I spent more time than I planned, but I felt good about it. I was having fun and I knew that I was providing a very helpful service for my client, even if it might lead to ultimately mixing fewer songs than I’d prefer.

I uploaded the result. The artist was over the moon about it! He asked me to make a couple of small changes, and I ended up booking the whole package deal instead of merely a song or two. Plus, he now feels great about it instead of stressed. Win-win accomplished.  If I did not adapt, this would’ve never happened.

On the creative side, I also ensured adaptation rather than extinction. After uploading the rough mix, my formally scheduled client, Wishnefsky, arrived so we could begin mixing his new album. Over the years, I’ve trained him to deliver his files in such a way that we can crank out four or five songs per day. 10 years ago, it was one song per day.

Back in the day, Wish delivered his audio files the same way as everybody else: one track per microphone. His layered synthesizer arrangements always sounded perfect in his rough mixes, which at the time lacked in every other regard. Although I could quickly make everything else sound much better, it took me an inordinate amount of time to get the synthesizers to sound only 80% as good as the rough mix. So one day I asked him to make me a stereo submix of the synthesizers only. I flew that into my mix, and it came to life.

Several albums later, Wishnefsky’s mixing chops are much improved. He brings submixed “stems” to our mix sessions. I have control of only four individual instruments: lead vocal, bass, kick drum and snare drum. I don’t really mix his stuff as much as I improve the work that he has already done. Regardless of what you call it, I am providing a service that helps him achieve his artistic vision.

Over the past few years, we’ve gotten comfortable with the knowledge that this is the approach that works best for him. That said, we were feeling a little bit too comfortable, like we need to shake things up. So we did an experiment.

Our plan was to pick a song and then compare four different mixes of it:

  1. ITB (inside the box) digitally summed from submixes
  2. OTB (outside the box) analog summed from sub mixes
  3. OTB from sub mixes, plus buss EQ and compression
  4. OTB from the ground up, i.e. a proper Michael James mix from the individual elements

I’ve done similar experiments several times, and years ago determined which approach sounds best to me. That said, it was wise to do it again to ensure that Wishnefsky could make the best decision with respect to how deeply to put himself into the hole.  He simply couldn’t afford two weeks of mixing. 

Wishnefsky and I have known each other long enough that we consider each other close friends. He would have trusted me if I simply told him which version was the best choice for his budget. I already knew the answer, but… If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there is always more to learn.

Technology is constantly improving, so the experiment was not simply for the benefit of Wishnefsky. I was able to re-examine the results to learn if today’s differences are as dramatic as those of yesteryear.  I’ll spare you my opinion because ITB vs OTB is widely considered a game of inches and the debate is heated, with many inexperienced “experts” spewing untested philosophical opinion as fact. Perhaps it’s time for those folks to evolve before going the way of the dinosaurs. 

Idiot-Proof Electric Guitar & Bass Mic Technique

One mic = zero phase problems

Wishnefsky asked me how to get great guitar and bass sounds when miking Mesa speaker cabinets. There are any number of ways to record a great tone, but there’s one idiot-proof way to do it if you’re not sure what you’re doing:

Point a single microphone, on axis, directly at the glue ring of a speaker’s dust cap. 

That’s the simple answer. The more involved answer entails choosing the right microphone, placing it the optimum distance from the grille cloth, determining how aggressively to set the microphone preamp, etc. I could devote an entire master class to this, but I will keep it simple for this post. Long story short, you can’t go wrong with this technique.

Here are a few things that will help you take it to the next level.

  • Wear earplugs when setting your amp, and listen to the speaker with your ear, not the back of your knees as so many guitarists do when playing onstage. Flat frequency response filters like ER 15’s are good for this.
  • Learn the sonic differences between condenser, ribbon and dynamic microphones. Choose one conducive to the vibe you want to create.
  • If you decide to use multiple close mics, the combination of a ribbon and a dynamic can be very effective. The ribbon sounds warm and natural while the dynamic is bright and punchy. I like to use a Royer R121 along with a Sennheiser MD 421 or MD 409U3 to capture complex and sophisticated electric guitar tones. The capsules of both microphones want to be exactly the same distance from the glue ring around the dust cap, angled on the same plane.
  • If you cannot clearly see where the glue ring is, shine a bright flashlight through the grille cloth. The dust cap will reveal itself.

Be aware that a great guitar or bass tone is partly a function of the sound of the room in which it is recorded. You can experiment with setting up a room mic to capture some of the ambience if you like it.

Based on my own personal experience, I prefer taking the simplest route to success. Start with one microphone, and get it to sound the way you want it. If you can’t accurately capture the tone, try a different microphone or add a second one.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my world-class engineer friends roast me for this post, but I’m telling you, this works. I recently captured a live performance of Cathedrals for a Spotify Session without a sound check. I had to trust that the microphone was going to give me a usable sound for not only for FOH (front of house), but also for the album that I would subsequently mix. As expected, it worked.

Let me know if you have any questions or any great ideas to share. Good luck and happy recording!



So You Want To Be A Rekkid Producah!

Part 1: Yesterday 

I’m living the dream. My screen shot looks like a jet-setter’s dessert menu, a collection of exotic treats to be consumed with enthusiasm and moderation.

Ever wonder what the dream looks like? Let’s pull back the curtain to see what the Wiz is up to.

Today’s workload was relatively light and pressure free. Got up 6 AM to exercise on my bike…and still hadn’t ridden nearly 19 hours later. New York is three hours ahead, so I decided to have a quick chat with my web designer before she’d get buried beneath the pile of other duties on her desk.

My next task was pitching another New Yorker an article for Pro Sound News. There are multiple plates spinning, so I memorialized the chat in a detailed email to remind us where we left off. Before I knew it, a couple hours passed. I thought, “I better get outside before it’s too late.”

I step into the garage to prep my bicycle and right away I receive an email from my client, Rotimikeys, telling me that he’s having trouble uploading audio files. I went back inside to check my server, and learned that the problem was on his end. He’s eight hours ahead, in Lagos, Nigeria. We sort out the problem just as the phone rings.

I take the call from David Demeter of Drum Lab. We have a detailed discussion about an upcoming workshop related to drum mic’ing and mixing. Lunchtime rolls around and I still haven’t ridden or mixed a single note.

Fast forward to a dinner meeting. Delicious vegetarian Indian curry with an interesting, talented and charming recording engineer… Had fun, returned to studio, figured out why Rotimikeys’ files weren’t downloading from wetransfer. It’s after midnight for me, and a brand new day in Lagos.

The files get here a few minutes later. I load them into Pro Tools to make sure that they are in good shape. I email Rotimikeys to confirm that I’ll be able to hit the ground running in 12-ish hours.

I’m living the dream. It’s going to be a long day.

Part 2: Today

It feels like it’s still yesterday. Woke early again to do east coast biz. Rode bike for 90 minutes. Did a conference call with a boutique pro audio manufacturer regarding a three-part press feature connected to the upcoming release of my album.

1:30 PM rolls around and I’m finally mixing a record. It’s a Gospel tune with great musicians…and nearly 100 audio tracks. Plus it’s over five minutes long. Eight hours later, I upload an MP3 of the mix for comments.

If the producer, artist and label approve it, I’m done. I already printed instrumental and a capella stems (submixes), just in case it’s a wrap. If not, I will receive an email with comments, and I’ll print a revision.

Waiting for comments is the toughest part of international jobs. I’m not thrilled about making minuscule subjective changes at midnight, and I’ll bet that the Nigerians are not jumping for joy at the prospect of critical listening and note-taking before sucking down their morning cup o’ java.

Even though the workdays are long and I need to be “on” the entire time, this is the best job on the planet for my personality type.  I’m grateful that there are folks in this world who are willing to go the extra mile to work together. As long as they are not complaining about the late nights and early mornings, neither will I.

I’m reminded of the cliche: “Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.”

So you want to be a record producer? I do.

Fresh Blog! Any Questions?

What would you like to read about? Please send me any topics or questions that interest you. Thanks!

As much as I appreciate quality organic produce, I prefer to blather about creative pursuits, especially when related to the recording studio. Let’s make this blog a 2-way street with a steady stream of fresh ideas. Bring ’em on!

LACM Master Class

Yesterday Rob Chiarelli and I gave a master class with Andre Knecht, head of the Record Production and Engineering department, at the Los Angeles College of Music. The students were really on the ball, asking questions such as how creative do we get to be during the mixing process and how do we value our services in the marketplace.  It was refreshing to see all those kids engaged in such a lively dialogue.

We’re putting together a few public events in the near future, so I’ll let you know when the dates are nailed down. 

Learning Curve

MJ Console Selfie  

I thought I’d spend five minutes saying, “Hello, world! My new album is about to be released, and I can’t wait to share it.”  But, alas, I’ve burned an hour trying to figure out why this picture uploaded upside-down.  Really.  It did, but now it’s right side-up, presumably because I’m posting it to show you just how upside-down it is (was).  Even though it no longer is… 

Sometimes you simply have to find amusement in the irony.  Life will throw you a curveball that looks like it’ll knock you down, but you stay focused and take a swing if you want to stay in the game.  That’s what this newfangled blogging thing seems like to this old-timer: a swing to remain relevant in a game that I helped shape. 

This is going to be fun. Play ball!