Writer’s Block? Try Filling Up. 

I saw this home brewed lending library in Petaluma yesterday. A community of residents has begun erecting lending libraries like this simply because it’s a cool thing to do. That was pretty inspirational to me. Then I talked with the homeowner about it, and she informed me that the local government and others were conspiring to levy taxes on the transactions – even though there’s no money being exchanged! There’s not even a clerk present. Everything is done on the honor system. Take a book, leave a book. Enrich the community. Inspire imagination and creativity! 

It really got me thinking about just how profound nearly anything can be when you peel back the thin surface veneer and examine the underlying nuts and bolts. Some people are just naturally creative, and others or not, right? Not exactly… Even the most creative people require discipline and ritual to nurture their innate creativity.

Around 1990-91, I had the honor of working with one of the best songwriters on the planet, John Lang. The cousin of Mr. Mister’s lead singer, John cowrote two #1 hits and a top-5 in the mid ’80s: Broken Wings, Kyrie and Is It Love. 

John and I did a couple cowrites. Man, what a learning experience! Along the way, I asked him if he was prone to getting writer’s block. He answered, “No.” Then he explained that his less-than-productive periods were incredibly important to his writing success because they were the times when he did what he called “filling up.” 

Filling up for him meant living a life rich with experience. I recall John as being in the moment whenever we left the studio. Dinner, walk on the beach, my wedding… Wherever we went, he was there. He was interested in pretty much any topic of conversation. Once he momentarily got stuck on a lyric, so he dragged everybody at the session down the limerick rabbit hole. After a few good laughs, he was recharged and he nailed the lyrics. 

I’ve used John’s technique religiously over the years. All my various life experiences give me lots of material from which to mine. They affect much more than lyrics—they also help me to empathize and see things (even song arrangements) from different perspectives. 

I fill up in any number of ways. Good book, movie, bike ride, dinner with friends, etc. While doing it, I don’t think about how the experience will affect the music. Instead, I immerse myself in the moment. All in. 100%. That way, I don’t miss anything because I’m focused on the experience, not an agenda. The richer the moment, the more vibrant the art. 

If you’re immersed in the moment, I bet you can find inspiration in just about anything. In the picture above, taken at LACMA, bassist extraordinaire/soccer mom/friend Kelly Bowen is walking through an interactive sculpture. Immediately several song-worthy images and themes come to mind: Technicolor rain, fields of grain, finding your way, breaking free, etc. 

The photo below is of Kelly’s 9-year old daughter Aidyn. The kid and I ran two miles up a steep mountain trail, then barreled down it and met up with her mom and my wife, Irina, who is a restoration ecologist. Irina took Aiden on an interpretive walk the day before, and Aiden wanted to prove that she absorbed some of the information that she heard. Thus we snapped several portraits containing a wide variety of wildflowers. The experience of running with a nine-year-old was inspirational, not only for the sheer joy of doing it, but also because of the themes of young & old, open spaces, awe & wonder, the cycle of life, springtime, etc. 

Next time you feel like your creative powers are lacking, break your usual pattern and do something different. Immerse yourself in the experience, and it is likely that you will fill up with new ideas.

Misc. Stuff: Event with Rob Chiarelli; Gear “Option Anxiety”; KIVA Music. 

Event details 

Mingle and Learn

Rob and I will be the featured guests of Marek Stycos at tomorrow night’s GC Pro and Audio Alchemist event. We will be available to answer questions about how we do things in the studio, or we might simply hang out over a bowl of Thai curry and get to know some new friends.

I enjoy doing these types of events because they give me an opportunity to mingle with old friends, meet new ones and share classic recording techniques and philosophies with the next generation of audio recordists. Plus, in this case, it’s going to be a blast because Rob and Marek are at the top of their game. They are masters of what they do, and they’re both good friends of mine.

Giving Back

Rob and I have been making a concerted effort to “give back” by doing events, workshops and master classes. Although there is an inherent educational component to what we do, we try to keep things light and fluid, with plenty of room for improvisation and interactive audience participation. I’ve been told by several sources that the attendees and the sponsors both value this because they leave the event feeling like, “If Rob and Michael can do this, so can we!” I guess that modest success in the record business looks glamorous and unobtainable to the new guys & gals. Apparently we put a face and a tangible handshake to that success, therefore making it real and within reach.

Recording Gear

Something I’ve noticed is the fact that the up-and-coming generation of record producers generally have very little gear—and they can’t even imagine that they will ever have the resources to acquire a collection. They don’t believe that they will ever make enough money from music to actually own some cool pieces of equipment. Their recording studios are sometimes simply a laptop and a microphone. But that doesn’t stop them from making some great records. 

By contrast, those of us who were lucky enough to have a career in the business when the money was flowing have accumulated enough tools to deal with any potential situation. Some of us are prolific; others are lazy. There’s also a third subset that gets bogged down in what I call “option anxiety”: those cats have so many choices that they spend too much time futzing with technology when they could just be making music. They become slaves to the tools, which should in fact exist to serve the music. My philosophy is that one would be better off learning every little operational and aesthetic nuance about just a few key pieces of gear, than to only scratch the surface of a vast collection. It’s likely that I will be reminding some folks of that fact at tomorrow’s event.

Rising Stars

Over the past couple of years, I have observed one of my favorite record producers, Stefano Vieni, along with his brilliant engineer Alex Ponce (aka El Guapo!), develop a nice collection of recording equipment. In their mid 20s, these two talented young men have made around 150 records during that time, some of which have become hits on the Latin charts. They are very smart about their purchases, and they learn how to get the most mileage from each item. Technology never gets in the way of what they do – it only enhances it.

Alex has earned my respect not only for his engineering and mixing skills, but also for the fact that he is humble enough to ask for mentoring whenever he needs it. He’s gotten so good, so quickly! Some young cats are credit hogs and don’t reach out for help because they want to be the rockstar. As a consequence, they learn lessons more slowly than the humble guys who ask for help. That’s not Alex. He’ll make an international call in the middle of the night if he thinks it will help to make a better record. 

Alex and Stefano are responsible for the recent #1 and Gold records I’ve mixed.  Kalimba, Mario Guerrero, new artist Anna Sophia, et al. Great stuff! I’m super excited for them and all the success they are having. Even though they have gotten good enough that they no longer need my services, they continue to work with me. They understand the long-term value of nurturing good relationships. For that, I am grateful. Keep your eyes and ears open for their new venture, KIVA Music.

Multi-Buss Mixing Philosophy 

The question, “What’s on your mix buss?” has been all the rage for several years now. Mix engineers have been pre-mastering their work for a long time, to ensure that the mastering engineer has a clear artistic vision before manipulating the audio.

Digital audio sound quality and mixing “inside the box” (summing in the digital domain) may have caused the latest renewed interest in mix buss processors. Digital sound has often been characterized as harsh and clinical. Character pieces like a vacuum tube compressors and limiters can do a great job of warming up the sound, making it more euphonic. Insert a Manley Labs Variable Mu stereo compressor across the mix buss, and a good mix magically transforms into a juicy record.

That said, stereo mix buss processing has inherent limitations. As an example, let’s pretend that you have set the compressor’s attack and release parameters to make the song have an exciting pumping effect, in time with the music. Think EDM (electronic dance music) as an obvious point of reference. Everything sounds good… until the producer asks you to beef up the low and and add more brightness to the overall mix. All of a sudden your once warm lead vocal starts to sizzle, and the entire mix starts gasping for air every time the kick drum happens. When you are that deeply into a dense mix, adding one more straw can break the camel’s back.

The solution to this problem is actually quite simple. Instead of processing one stereo mix buss, break the mix down into several submixes consisting of components that symbiotically work together. In the video link above, I discuss the workflow of breaking the mix into three stereo buses instead of one. Buss A is for all the vocals. Buss B contains the bass and drums. Buss C includes all the harmonic instruments that are typically panned out to the sides, leaving the center of the soundstage open for maximum vocal, bass, kick and snare punch and clarity.

Each of those three busses is independently processed. They can benefit from using different attack and release settings and thresholds, as well as different EQ curves. 

Perhaps the simplest example of how to deploy this technique would be a scenario in which you want the bass & drums to have an obvious rhythmic “pump” without having the compression affecting the vocals. Further, imagine you want to brighten all the harmonic instruments a lot, without adding sibilance to the vocals. No problem with submix processing!

(Video courtesy of Dangerous Music, Inc.)

How To Prepare Pro Tools Sessions For Upload To Mix Engineers (Video Tutorial)

I frequently get asked how to prepare and clean up audio files and Pro Tools HD sessions for efficient uploading to online remote mixing service providers like IndieProMix.  This home-brewed video shows how to create alternate playlists, delete unused playlists and audio clips, consolidate/merge files, save a lean & mean session/project instead of an unruly beast, and more.

If you have not done this process before, or simply need a refresher, watch this thing twice. Watch it all the way through the first time, then be ready to pause it every few seconds the second time while you follow along in your DAW.

Alternatively, you can click on http://www.indiepromix.com/guidelines.html and navigate to a printer friendly description of the process.

Following these guidelines will ensure that your FTP upload will be as fast and efficient as possible, and that your mix engineer won’t waste precious creative time in housekeeping mode.  Better preparation = better mix…faster!

Feel free to share the video and this post with anybody who can benefit from it.  Let me know if you have any questions or related tips and tricks of your own.

Artist Endorsements: To Free or Not To Free?

People frequently ask me how to get artist endorsement deals. My answer typically begins with the question, “Are you sure you want one?” Two clichés come to mind. 

  1. Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it. 
  2. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. 

That said, I’ve been very happy with my various artist deals over the years. The reason is that I only endorse products and people in whom I believe. Further, they believe in me, in part because I’ve proven that the relationship is a two way street. 

I’m willing to pay for everything I endorse. Guess what: I do! Frankly my artist accommodation prices are discounted, but the only time I get free stuff is when the manufacturer feels that I’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty. Even then, I still offer to pay because I need the flexibility to use whatever I want, whenever I want. 

In the photo above, my friend Shawn Wayland (left) and I are in full Serious Cycling regalia, representing our race team from 2014. We believe in the sponsors and we feel that they, in turn, represent who we are as racers and members of society. Kitting up in the team colors made us perform at our best, and reminded us that we were part something bigger. We were in fact ambassadors, evangelists and rolling billboards. 

That’s great news if you believe in what you represent. It’s why we look so genuinely happy. 

Imagine for a moment that we were wearing free clothing plastered with something that is the opposite of what we’re about. Let’s say cigarettes. Wait…how about trophy/sport hunting of wildlife on safari? It sounds outlandish, but it’s entirely plausible when you add a large pile of cash to the equation. 

Okay, let’s tone it down and use a couple more realistic examples: guitar amps and lifestyle apparel. How would you feel if Peavy (nothing wrong with the brand—just using it as an example of a non-boutique manufacturer) was paying you consistently for exclusively playing their amps when your heart was into Mesa/Boogie or Fender? Remember that the amp is a reflection of you and your values. Or what if you licensed your artist brand to a clothing company or designer who expected you to rock the socks pictured below at all your photo ops?

Nice, right? Dress for success, baby! In case you’re wondering, no, I did not lose a bet. I did this in service to you, my faithfully devoted readers, to illustrate the point that you better believe in whatever is attached to your name. Plus, I’m always up for a good laugh. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no right to laugh at anyone else!

Anyway… the best artist deals for me are the ones that are mutually beneficial. They encourage both parties to actively engage in bettering the other guy’s life. Over the past ten years I’ve become good friends with Bob Muller of Dangerous Music. We’ve never signed a piece of paper, nor discussed an artist deal, but we are allies. Whatever you want to call our relationship, it works for both of us. We both help each other on myriad levels. Bob solves problems for me before I know that they exist. I’ve called him to ask if he knows how to deal with a new issue, and he’s literally said, “Yeah, just press this button and you’re good to go.”

Bob knows he can count on me for honest feedback and sometimes manual labor. I’ve been the talent at several events/workshops/seminars to demonstrate how I use his products on a daily basis, and how they improve the quality of my life. Even though he’s offered appearance fees, I will never accept them. That’s how powerful our symbiotic relationship is. 


I have the same attitude toward Manley Labs, Chandler Limited and anything that involves Paul Wolff. These guys step up for me, so I do the same for them. Some folks forget that companies are not faceless entities, and that they are in fact collections of individual people who have the same basic needs as you and I. 

The upshot is that it’s important to represent products that represent you. Do you really want to eat, sleep, drink and breathe [brand x] in exchange for a few dollars? That is the question.  When you get past the financial perquisites and focus on the ways that you can be of service, the right endorsements will organically find their way to you. 

“Friend Sourcing” part 1: Getting By With A Little Help From My Friends 

It’s true what they say: business is all about relationships. Despite the fact that I paid some serious dues and did a ton of woodshedding on my own, I can definitively say that nearly all of my achievements inside and outside of the studio have been affected by my relationships. It’s better to have friends than enemies. Even better is to have friends who are eager to help you because you have proven that you are willing to help them.

Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records and WEA, once told me that one’s success in business was directly limited by one’s success in home life or marriage. Even the most impressive macho empire could be toppled by a woman scorned. I’ve seen very expensive recording sessions be canceled due to lovers’ quarrels.

Both personal and business relationships require nurturing and maintenance. I can’t imagine a way to be successful in business without building strong teams and strategic alliances. In my experience, developing a rapport and finding common interests beyond the task at hand are key in developing lasting relationships. That’s how I’ve become true friends with many of my vendors, clients and artists. The deeper the connection, the more likely we are to succeed at seemingly impossible endeavors. Two people working together for a common goal are 1000 people strong.

Consultation is a huge part of my spiritual practice. Trust me when I tell you that I am quite capable of making decisions quickly, with conviction. That said, I find that consulting with a group of proven friends (who can leave their personal baggage at the door and evaluate the facts without prejudice) is an effective way to create a solid game plan.

About 10 years into my career in the music business, I made the jump from working at a carpet cave (Radio Tokyo Studios) to a world-class recording studio (Westlake Audio). I already produced a few hit records, but I had absolutely no idea how half the gear at Westlake even worked. “Famous Manager” phoned me in a panic because “Famous Producer & Engineer” walked out on day one of tracking an album. They zeroed out the Neve console before splitting. I guess there was a problem with the deposit check.

I had to finish my recording session in Venice Beach before driving over to West Hollywood at midnight to begin recording the band. They were patient – all 12 of them – even after waiting seven or eight hours for me to arrive. Luckily they did not add to my stress level despite the fact that they were clearly disappointed by the events that transpired earlier in the day.

Westlake Audio had a reputation for training terrific assistant engineers, and the guy they assigned to me was no exception. Chris Fogel eventually went on to become Alannis Morissette’s engineer, but on that night he was simply Chris, the guy who could either make or break me during my first at-bat in the big leagues. I quickly realized that I was in over my head, so I asked Chris to take a more active role than an assistant typically would do. He knew all the equipment and I knew how to inspire a great performance and make a record, so we were a good team. Chris knew that I appreciated his contributions, so he felt valued. He got me through the night and helped me to learn a lot of technical stuff that was previously beyond me. I, on the other hand, was able to encourage him to abuse perfectly good equipment in the quest to coax the best out of an artist. Neither one of us was too proud to ask the other for perspective and knowledge. We friend-sourced each other.

I’m chuckling as I type this blog post because I distinctly remember one day when I was working in studio C with a client while Chris was woodshedding without a client in studio D. He had a mix set up on the desk that technically sounded terrific, but he felt compelled to ask my opinion. I’m glad he did because his work was too clean, and was not emotionally resonating with me. It sounded beautiful, but I wasn’t feeling anything from it. We talked about the importance of getting things right without overly laboring them. Polishing away all of the rough edges can also take away some of the soul or mojo of a record. He said something to the effect of, “These guys are paying me $2000 a mix, and I don’t even know what I’m doing.”  Being a consummate professional, Chris was of course being humble and modest, but he truly cared. That’s why he was putting in the extra hours to develop his craft, and that’s also why he was not too timid or shy to ask for a friend’s help.  Needless to say, Chris went on to become one of the best of the best, but he, like all of us, had to start somewhere.

To this day, I continue the practice of consultation and friend sourcing.  I do as many favors as I can, and I consequently get a lot of help from my friends.  As abundance came into my life and I became the guy who was able to help others, I learned that it is a pleasure to help someone in need, someone who is willing to work to earn your support.  I now realize that when I was homeless, I probably did not need to spend nearly as many nights outdoors as I actually did. I didn’t want to wear out my welcome, because if it rained, I wanted to have better odds of finding shelter. When my friends took me out to dinner, I would order the cheapest item on the menu, typically a grilled cheese sandwich for three dollars while they were having $12 roast beef sandwiches. I eventually understood that good people want to help other good people who need a break. They are happy to help somebody who is willing to help himself.  And we all need a break every once in a while.

The moral of the story is to be as helpful to others as you can, and to be willing to ask for their help.  Friends enjoy helping other friends.  Teamwork ensures success when individuals fail due to scarcity of resources. Plus it’s more fun to share success with your friends and loved ones than it is to sit alone in silence, admiring your trophies.  “Party” sounds so much more enticing than “party of one.”  That’s why I will continue to get by with a little help from my friends.