“My credo is, if you can’t have fun, or at least enjoy what you’re doing, stay home. Find your happiness and then go do something with it. And whatever that is, do it with honor!” – Collyer Spreen
There’s no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and getting shit done to better yourself. And there’s no better way to realize your own individual potential than to build a strong support network.
Think about it: even the strongest Olympic-strength muscles cannot function without being supported by strong bones, tendons and ligaments.
Willie Mays and Babe Ruth, arguably two of the greatest baseball players in the history of the game, were tremendous individual talents. But their true success was in the context of strong Giants and Yankees teams.
You get my point. Teamwork is vital, even with respect to individual accomplishments.
Because I get to work closely with famous rock stars, I sometimes get welcome recognition and press. That’s not the case, however, for my vital support teammates, who are just one step further removed from the superstars. But it’s on the backs of these men and women that I am able to create a foundation to support those stars. They deserve recognition, which is why I occasionally write these “Pinging The Pros” blog posts.
Collyer Spreen is one of the people who has saved my ass multiple times, but you never see his name on the records he quietly (and sometimes heroically) resurrected. I first met him within the context of a fairly mundane occurrence: a new control surface for my mixing console wasn’t properly interfacing. Therefore I was unable to write moving fader automation, which is one of the keys to adding movement, dynamics and excitement to a mix. Collyer very quickly sorted out my issues, and I was up and running before my artist even knew there was a problem.
Although Collyer is a Renaissance man who can compose, record, produce and mix whatever you throw at him— he’s basically an industry unto himself— he also has a passion for helping others. During his time at Avid, makers of the industry standard Pro Tools digital audio workstation, Collyer was literally the only person at the company who was able to consistently and quickly solve any technical issues affecting my studio. Don’t get me wrong – I love working on Pro Tools, but I often know more about the software than Avid’s technical support teams do. This is very frustrating, especially considering that I pay $399 per year, times two “Ultimate” licenses, for support that never works for me.
Having said that, a gem like Collyer Spreen is worth his weight in gold. I would pay twice that amount if Collyer were assigned as my go-to guy. He’s that good. Plus he’s fun, possessing a wicked sense of humor. And he’s a hardcore bicyclist, so we are always chopping it up about excellent rides!
As fate would have it, a shake up at Avid prompted Collyer to return to his independent freelance roots. So he is in fact now my go-to guy for all things Pro Tools, even though he is no longer on Avid’s payroll.
I recently caught up with Collyer and asked him a few questions that may be interesting to both veteran and newbie recordists. Here are some highlights.
1) MJ: When something goes wrong with Pro Tools, I can easily spend hours or even days sifting through error messages and compatibility documents to sort out a glitch that might cost me thousands of dollars while sending the wrong message to my VIP clients. You, on the other hand, always seem to know the solution, even for very esoteric problems. You’ve safely navigated me out of numerous shit storms within minutes. Can you tell me more about how and why do you stay on top of this stuff, and why you find it rewarding?
CS: The sound of things has always intrigued & inspired me from early on, so the how & why of it has always been a “need” for me. Music and great sound aren’t always mutually inclusive, but some people make it so, and that is what drives me, as I’m sure, it does others in this wild business. Plus, all this power over sound is cool as it gets.
2) MJ: If others want to benefit from your consulting services, what’s the best way for them to reach you?
CS: I can be found at mixmode.net. Or out on my bicycle in the woods.
3) MJ: How does your consulting service enhance your other artistic pursuits, and vice versa? Further, how do you balance the music stuff with your other interests in life?
CS: Music, mixing music, and the the tech geek in me fulfill a part of my drive, but helping others with my experience & knowledge has an equal drive in me that finds fulfillment in teaching, sharing, and solving others’ problems or challenges. You’d be shocked to know how many top level mixers/engineers have benefitted from my help – I know I am – my phone contacts reads as a who’s-who of audio professionals. The best part of this is how appreciative and gracious 98.6% of the clients I have are, and as you know, this can be an ego-centric, um, me-before-everybody-else business. But I learned my way from really great mixers and engineers that are also great humans. I was lucky enough to be in Hollywood when the music business was handing money out like candy, and as an assistant engineer in the ‘80s, worked on projects from Scritti Politti, Patti LaBelle, Crowded House, Donna Summer, MJ, Starship, Poison, and a list I could name drop for hours. Speaking of name droppers, that Sting, man, can he name drop….
4) MJ: Is there anything else of interest that you might like to share with my readers?
CS: My credo is, if you can’t have fun, or at least enjoy what you’re doing, stay home. Find your happiness and then go do something with it. And whatever that is, do it with honor!
I began my day by composing the following email to my friend Tom Anderson:
In case you haven’t heard yet, one of our extended family of Anderson-playing brethren, Greg Lake, passed away yesterday at age 69 after a battle with cancer.
I clearly recall Greg telling me how much he loved his blue Drop Top. You and I later talked about it, and you said, “I don’t know why he likes it so much. It’s an experiment that was never intended to be seen in public. The top is nondescript, and the guitar is a B-flat at best.” Greg had an usual relationship with equipment. When he dug something, he was totally into it, but when he couldn’t figure it out, he simply gave up on it. He practically *gave* me his original Matchless DC30 after I was able to coax righteous tones out of it that he was not. Said it would be better in my hands than his.
I have fond memories of him.RIP Greg.
Everybody knew Greg Lake as the legendary singer/ bassist of Emerson Lake & Palmer, whose hit “Lucky Man” remains a Classic Rock radio staple 40 years later. Fewer knew he was the voice of King Crimson for a while. I knew him as the generous gear geek whose quest was the perfect note played with the perfect tone.
When my mentor and chosen-brother Keith Wechsler brought me into the ELP fold as a “tone consultant” during rehearsals for a tour, Greg and I immediately bonded via our mutual affinity for Anderson guitars and Mesa amplifiers. Greg had recently obtained a new prized possession, a not-for-sale, in-house “tester” Anderson Drop Top guitar that he borrowed from Tom. To Tom’s surprise, Greg refused to return the guitar, despite reassurances that a non-tester finished product would be more satisfying and certainly better looking.
As the owner of several stunning showroom-quality “Andys” with AAA+++ quilted maple tops, I was acutely aware of the fact that Tom never intended to sell Greg’s guitar because its top had no sex appeal. Its grain pattern was so plain that it deserved to be painted, not stained. Nonetheless, Greg said the instrument gave him inspiration, and that he couldn’t put it down. “When you find something that inspires you,” he said, “you don’t let go of it.”
Greg plugged in to his Mesa TriAxis preamp & Simul-Class 2:90 power amp and treated me to an inspired solo rendition of his 1972 hit “From The Beginning” from ELP’s Trilogy album. The guitar clearly was Greg’s Holy Grail instrument, obviously giving him tremendous joy to play. Afterward, he presented the axe to me with the reverence of a diplomat bestowing a rare artifact upon a head of state after signing a historic treaty. I caressed the fretboard with a few expensive-sounding Steely Dan chords before returning the crown jewel to its smitten owner.
I then programmed some custom presets into Greg’s Mesa/Boogie rig, fine tuning them to his unique “touch” and style. He loved that rig, and was happy to have a few new colors on his tonal palette.
Greg then asked me if I could help him with his new Matchless DC30 because he “couldn’t get a tone” from it. Matchless was, at the time, the new boutique kid in town. The flagship DC30 was intended to be a roadworthy Vox AC30-inspired amp with two separate channels and attitudes. I was already familiar with the amp because Rusty Anderson walked me through his DC30 before a recording session at A&M Studio A. I showed Greg some tips and settings, but he wasn’t feeling the amp. He was simply uninspired by the amp, and it showed. Greg handed me the guitar, and all of a sudden music began pouring by the bucket from the speakers. Horses for courses. I guess there’s no true one-size-fits-all.
Greg’s generosity found its way to me. He believed that I would put the DC30 to better use than he, so he offered to give me the amp–which he knew was valued at $2500! I politely declined, saying that I would be willing to buy it from him rather than accept it as a gift. He asked if I had any cash in my wallet. I said, “Not enough.” He asked how much. I replied, “Only $600.” Greg said, “If you insist on paying for my gift to you, I insist you fork over that $600 right now.” With a wink and a big smile, he happily took my money. I took home a piece of Rock & Roll history.
In the spirit of passing the gift of tone to those more worthy of carrying the torch, I ultimately placed the amp with six-string phenom David Weiss of Travis Whitelaw, Trailer Radio, Slackjaw and Steve Conte’s band. Dave is a solid friend whose fiery-yet-tasty playing never ceases to amaze me. Dave also appreciates his DC30’s provenance and its fabled “green transformer” mystique.
Circling back to Greg Lake, another anecdote worth sharing is my recollection of a lovely “family day” in the park. FM radio giants Kansas and Tower Of Power were headlining an afternoon outdoor concert with Greg at Balboa Park in Los Angeles. Greg, a legend among rock’s royalty, was totally relaxed, low key, savoring the lovely weather and the company of his friends and colleagues. He was just another regular guy who was happy to share sandwiches, cheese and apples with the rest of us mere mortals, both before and after switching to the Rock Deity persona only while he was on stage. There was no isolated backstage cloistering on that day. Greg Lake, legendary rockstar, was unassumingly enjoying his picnic among a thousand diverse Angelenos from all walks of life. I don’t think anyone noticed him until he took the stage.
If I recall, the closest Greg came to playing the rockstar card while off stage was when he and Wechsler, who played drums that day for Greg wearing a cast on his broken ankle (!), introduced me to TOP’s drummer Dave Garibaldi, because I mentioned that it would be really cool to sit behind Garibaldi during his set. Mission accomplished. Cherished memory cast in stone. Sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest impressions. Lucky man indeed.
First of all, the record business is not dead. It’s different. But hey, the world is different, thanks in part to the Internet. It may look burned to a crisp from the outside, but, like a toasted campfire marshmallow, there’s good stuff hidden just beneath the surface.
With respect to music and artistry, truly committed recording artists, i.e. those who have a sense of purpose more profound than making (or copping) a fashion statement, will continue to record and release great music, with or without financial reward. They cannot help it, because they are driven artists to the core. These artists are releasing some of the best music I’ve heard over the course of my 35 year career in the biz. I mix a lot of indie records these days, and I can sincerely say that I rarely have an intolerable day at work. Frankly, most days are exciting, fun and enjoyable. I can’t say the same about the years when my work was mostly for major labels.
So, if the overall quality of the music—at least that which crosses my desk—is higher, why are we concerned about the record business? Because many artists and composers are not being paid fairly for their work, which can eventually cause enough financial stress to incentivize creators to stop creating new art. Just this week Rob Chiarelli and I met with Robert Fink, the Chair of UCLA’s Music Industry program, and had an interesting discussion related to this. Rob recounted speaking at another university, where his audience was half middle-aged faculty and half 20-something students. When he asked how many people believed that consumption of recorded music should be free, 80% of the crowd raised their hands. Fink then rhetorically posed the question, “Should the musicians who perform on records be paid for their services?” We assume that any reasonable person would emphatically declare, “Of course!”
Needless to say, the math simply doesn’t add up. But there is indeed great new music from new artists waiting to be discovered, so music lovers will continue to have a steady flow of new content to consume, right?
Frankly, I don’t know. I hope so, but, given the free-for-all nature of the Internet, it is much more difficult to actually find and discover the “great” new recording artists.
A byproduct of the manifestation of the much heralded promise of a level playing field (on which every artist would have an equal shot at success) was the loss of many major label “curators” who actively sought and developed talent while sticking to acts who were in line with their own, often peculiar, personal tastes. Like them or not, A&R personnel served a vital function with respect to growing the record business. A&R folks during the glory days of AOR (Album Oriented Rock) signed acts who they actually liked and believed in, often based on intangibles like emotional resonance and…wait for it…hunches. For the most part, they stuck to what they knew and loved.
The more recent trend has been to sign acts based on quantifiable numeric milestones, which may include indie sales, streams, downloads and other tangibles that fit neatly onto a spreadsheet or P&L. Hit a magic number, get a record deal—regardless of your new label’s passion for your product…oops, I meant music. I suppose that attitude makes sense on one level, but it doesn’t account for the emotional factor. Think about it: a Steely Dan fan might not get Jay Z any more than a 30 Seconds To Mars fan would feel John Denver or Ethel Merman. Every new artist needs a champion at the label. I’ve seen A&R folks go to the mat for their beloved artists when poor sales numbers did not reflect the intangible emotional resonance that accompanied an act. On the other side of the coin, it would be tough to champion a band that was the equivalent of a disposable paper cup to a label where there is an imbalance of artistic v. bottom line concerns—especially if you don’t even relate to the band’s music!
For a new major label artist, the pressure is on to have an immediate hit. Indie artists, however, can take longer, even years, to score, provided the funding well doesn’t run dry. Circling back to the title of this article, both major and indie artists are getting the shaft with respect to payouts for streaming, but there is more to the story. Labels are making money, even if digital piracy is ubiquitous. Artists and writers? Let’s just say that they better love music enough to create it even if they don’t get paid to do so…because they probably won’t. Streaming, along with downloading and theft, has cut into the revenue formerly produced by physical (CD) sales. This is clearly bad news for indies on the rise because they need every penny they can get, right?
Here’s where you get to lambast me. As much as I personally want to get paid fairly for my intellectual property, I personally want people to stream my music.
The record business is the new Wild West, a semi charted frontier that will see new ventures open for business as each town along the trail to the promised land establishes itself. Opportunities will present themselves in response to the demands of the people. We artists may stubbornly believe that we’ll continue to earn a living based on our record sales, but the times are a-changin’. There are plenty of revenue streams in the record business, but for new indie artists and non marquee major label artists, royalties from streaming and sales of downloads simply will not keep the raft afloat.
One partial solution is to identify and nurture SuperFans. From this subset of fans, you may (if you are lucky) find your own twelve apostles who will spread your gospel far and wide. In my case, I engage them with special content (like my blog or the master classes and seminars that I do in the Los Angeles area) to develop a genuine rapport. I also empower them by giving them mp3s to stream and or share, because the mp3 is my new business card.
A business card is designed to say, “Hey, check out me! Look what I can do for you!” They are to be given away, not sold. Try to imagine this conversation:
You: “Do you have a card?
Service provider: “Of course! Here you go…”
You: “Terrific! May I have another five for my friends?”
Service provider: “Sure! Thanks for spreading the word. That’ll be $5, please.”
The way I see it, the service provider just blew an opportunity. For a recording artist service provider, this would have been a big deal because it can be hard enough to get one person to listen to your music, let alone six! With so many options available to the listener, the artist must find a way to stand out from the background noise. In this case, there were six prospects (including you and potentially a coveted SuperFan) who were prequalified by you, because you already knew that their tastes in music intersected with this particular artist’s work. Plus you lend credibility to the referral by virtue of simply making the referral to your trusted friends.
The reality is that good new music almost immediately gets ripped and uploaded to YouTube the day it is released. Even Prince wasn’t able to control that reality. So my attitude is to focus on the opportunity rather than the injustice.
As an example, my 2015 album Marchesano is available via the usual delivery portals like iTunes, Bandcamp, and CD Baby. Bandcamp offers the option to unlock the limited number of free streams before the customer (read: potential fan) is required to either purchase the music or to listen to something else—which implies going someplace else. In the virtual marketplace, I never want to oust a customer from the shop–he/she places absolutely no burden on my resources. It’s not like I have my staff attending to this person, so I have nothing to lose. Let’s assume that this customer is in fact a cheap bastard who intends to stream my album a million times without ever paying for it. That’s great! I made the music for people to enjoy, plus El Cheapo may want to stream my music for friends (maybe even a future SuperFan) who are willing to support recording artists by buying their music and merchandise. I will never penalize anybody who wants my music to be part of the soundtrack to their lives.
Check this out: I have no control over iTunes’ pricing and presentation of Marchesano, but I can customize the presentation on Bandcamp. It has definitely and quantifiably made a positive difference. My artistic vision was to present the songs in the context of a concept album that chronicles a journey along a spiritual path. Therefore, I wanted to sell, or stream, the entire album. Bandcamp allowed me to refrain from selling individual songs, so I set the price at “$15 or more” for the entire thematically connected album. (iTunes forces the price to $0.99 per song, and, as a further insult, does not include the PDF booklet, which is integral to my vision of the artistic presentation.) My customers on Bandcamp pay “more” nearly 50% of the time. For some unknown reason, $22 is a popular price, and some folks have paid $50 for a download! I shit you not.
My personal, unique Bandcamp experience tells me that some music lovers are willing to support artists whose music resonates with them. Not everybody bases their purchasing decisions solely on price, so there is no real need to perpetuate the race to the bottom by fixing prices at roughly a buck per song while the cost of living continues to increase as wages stay the same for middle-class Americans.
The upshot of all this is that streaming is not inherently bad. It helps me develop a fan base at a grass roots level, and provides an easy way for new listeners to decide for themselves whether or not they want to take the next step, which can lead to any number of profit centers for me. Even if somebody steals an mp3, they will have the opportunity to purchase high definition wav files, a physical CD, licensing, my services as a producer/mixer/guitarist, or the fashionably questionable T-shirts I hope to foist on the world. Add to that humble list the revenue from live show ticket sales and merchandise for touring artists, whose fans want to take home a memento of a special evening shared with good friends and good music. Long story short, the record biz is a different beast than it was ten years ago, but there is plenty of opportunity for smart industrious types who see it for what it is, not for what it was.
As a parting thought, publisher/manager Jan Seedman offers some wisdom: “Musicians and those in the industry appreciate music fans who actually buy the music. This covers more than one area: 1) These fans don’t get enough credit for helping to support the music industry. They have become an elite group. 2) By acknowledging these fans, you are subtly sending a message to others that maybe non-paying fans should get on board and get off of “music welfare.” 3) It’s an opportunity to introduce the idea of Music Supporter/Fan Appreciation Day (or whatever you want to call it). Like Record Store Day, it’s an opportunity to acknowledge real music fans/supporters, even for one day. For MS/FAD, maybe suggest when a customer purchases music at full price on that day, he/she gets something else thrown in as a way of saying thanks.”
I do not remember exactly how I met David Baerwald. He was one half of the duo David + David, whose sole album yielded the hit “Welcome to the Boomtown.” Even though the 1986 release went Platinum, I did not pay much attention to it at the time because my bandwidth was full with my obsession for Peter Gabriel’s So, Crowded House’s eponymous debut (featuring “Don’t Dream It’s Over“), and Nik Kershaw’s Radio Musicola. Nonetheless, seven years later, David, whose album Triage had just been released, was sitting across from me, jamming on the sofa in my living room. I was mesmerized by the gorgeous Knopfler-esque riffs he coaxed from my Taylor 812c acoustic guitar, even though his performance was punctuated by the sound of flying lawnmowers—which were in reality propeller driven small planes on approach vectors, just about to land across the street at Clover Field, aka Santa Monica Municipal Airport.
David generously offered to network with me, probably because I had recently cowritten a couple songs with John Lang, who wrote the #1 hits “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings” for his cousin’s band, Mr. Mister. Lang, a brilliant lyricist who was understandably tough to impress, admired Baerwald’s lyrics and his singing. A few sprinkles of Lang’s credibility landed on me by association—plus I had recently produced my first major label hit for Irving Azoff’s fledgling Giant (Warner) Records—so the door of opportunity to the Big Leagues was flung wide open for the first time in my young career. This was terrific…until David asked me to play guitar.
Wait, what? If I’m a pro, that’s a chance to shine, right? Yes, but it’s also a sure-fire way to blow the all-important first impression if your chops are rusty. In 1993 I was infrequently playing guitar, and when I did pick up the instrument, I played ensemble parts that worked in the the context of a recording, but made no sense without the support of a full band arrangement. As an example, try to imagine how the guitar parts from “Broken Wings” (during the third verse at 3:14) or Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” would sound without the bass line to define the song’s harmonic structure, or without the drums to let you know where the downbeat is. My point is that “earcandy” parts (which were pretty much all that I played at the time) were simply unable to tell the story of a song by themselves. And they certainly would not impress my guest of honor, Mr. Baerwald, without a point of reference to show him how nicely and precisely they would fit into an arrangement.
So I instead decided to show David a complex solo acoustic guitar piece that I began composing the day before. The melody was hauntingly beautiful, and the jazzy chords were of the “expensive” variety whose pedigree might be from the epic Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaboration, Porgy and Bess. The bass line was simple enough, but the sound in my head required the listener to hear all three layers of harmonic content: melody, chords and bass. Therefore, I had to play all three at the same time, on one guitar…and I couldn’t do it. To describe the attempted recital as a “train wreck” would be far too kind. David, who by contrast is a real player’s player, let me off easy, stating that he understood where I was going with the tune, and he wished me luck in developing it.
Despite the fact that I blew it, David invited me to his loft behind Hal’s Restaurant (Cafe?) on Abbot Kinney in Venice, just a short walk from the infamous Radio Tokyo Studios where I became a recording engineer back in, coincidentally, 1986. David’s loft was super cool, with a vibe that begged you to get the creative juices flowing. Downstairs was home to a fully equipped recording studio, while upstairs housed various artifacts that may or may not have been related to certain CIA exploits that may or may not have involved David’s father, a political scientist.
David played me recordings of a new, as yet unreleased, project that he was “playing around with” on Tuesday nights with his friends Bill Bottrell, David Ricketts, Dan Schwartz, Brian MacLeod and Kevin Gilbert. They were writing songs with a background vocalist who did some work with Michael Jackson. As David was humbly asking me what I thought of the songs, I was amazed by the work! The recording technique was exemplary, with sonic detail and clarity so crisply defined that I could close my eyes and see the spaces between the instrumentalists! The players were all spot-on, but the virtuosity never overshadowed the organic soul of the songs, which told stories ranging from leaving Las Vegas to having fun on Santa Monica Boulevard, three short miles away from where we sat listening. And that singer! She had a compelling delivery that brought the words to life. I was simultaneously blown away by the sound, humbled by the virtuosity and inspired to elevate my game. I already had a Top 5 MTV hit with Too Much Joy’s cover of LL Cool J’s “That’s A Lie!” and I made some seminal SubPop records for Hole, L7 and Reverend Horton Heat, plus I was having one of my flavor-of-the-month moments in the A&R community, but my records couldn’t hold a candle to David’s side project. His recordings were marvelous and impressive on so many different levels, but remarkably they remained free of pretense. They sounded timeless, they sounded easy, and they sounded live. At that moment, I became determined to become a lifelong student of the craft of making honest records that would serve the songs, not the ephemeral trends.
Sometime thereafter, I drove onto the lot at A&M Records for a meeting with A&R VP Teresa Ensenat to pitch Brian Charles’ Boston based, Beatles-inspired band, Sidewalk Gallery. I recall three things from the meeting:
1) The pitch was successful, so Brian and I would soon be recording at the historic studio where we would eventually meet Crowded House and Rusty Anderson, who would turn me on to Matchless guitar amps long before hitting the road with Paul McCartney.
2) There were several guitar cases in Teresa’s office stenciled withe the name of Steve Earle. I pointed as if to ask, “What’s the story behind them?” Teresa volunteered, “I was married to Satan.” I changed the subject to the gorgeous SoCal weather.
3) I asked Teresa about the giant painting on the side of the recording studio. The fresh faced new artist, Sheryl Crow, was a priority for the label, and I should listen and let Theresa know my thoughts. She handed me a promo copy of Tuesday Night Music Club, which I spun in the car on my way to my session. I instantly recognized the euphonic gloriousness that mesmerized me at David Baerwald’s loft. “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Run Baby Run” and “All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun” were so memorable that I was able to sing along with the catchy hooks weeks after initially hearing them. I was happy to know that David was likely to enjoy another well deserved hit.
Less than two years later, I was head of A&R and staff Producer at Jac Holzman’s Warner Music Discovery label, which was on the front line of the WEA distribution hierarchy. Jac, who was Time Warner’s CTO if I recall correctly, had autonomy with respect to signing and prioritizing artists. He did not have to go through layers of middlemen like subsidiary labels did. For example, Madonna’s imprint Maverick had to answer to Reprise, who in turn had to answer to Warner Bros. As one moved higher up the totem pole, each entity took a slice of revenue and creative control of its subsidiaries, who sometimes had to fight hard to sign acts they loved. Because Jac was on equal footing with WEA’s big three (effectively big four, or anecdotally WEAD, at the time) I had the freedom and support to sign quality talent in whom I believed. At SXSW (South By Southwest) festival, I walked into a nearly empty club on Austin’s Sixth Street to hang out with a couple guys I met earlier in the day, mastering engineer Dave McNair and entertainment attorney Wofford Denius.
In that empty room, over the course of 45 minutes, my mind was once again blown, I was artistically humbled, and I was creatively inspired. A tall handsome lad, clad in gas station attendant coveralls, work boots and a Fender bass, sang his ass off while fronting a crack band of pros who were equally comfortable performing tender ballads or bombastic, odd time signature, Prog Rock opuses. His gorgeous ballad “Tea For One” was a heart-wrenching story of a shy guy who finally gets the courage to ask out the object of his desire a day too late, to find her in the embrace of a new lover. Another song, “Certifiable #1 Smash”, was appropriately titled because it indeed sounded like one during that live performance. I introduced myself to the artist, Kevin Gilbert, and offered him and his manager a record deal on the spot. Kevin handed me a CD of Thud, which I promptly marked with a Sharpie to indicate the three potential hits. My wife and I cherish that CD 22 years later for its excellent artistry, as well as the fact that it is a memento given to me shortly before Kevin tragically died far too young.
It wasn’t until I returned to Los Angeles that I connected the dots and realized that Kevin was already an accomplished musical force of nature. He was the vocalist of Toy Matinee, whose two hits “Last Plane Out” and “The Ballad Of Jenny Ledge” always compelled me to crank up the volume whenever I heard them being spun (physical LPs and CDs, unlike mp3s, actually spun under a turnable stylus or CD laser back in the day) on FM radio. Further, he was also an integral part of David’s mind blowing Tuesday Night Music Club project!
By the time I met Kevin Gilbert, I had learned from my earlier experiences with David Baerwald. I learned that no matter how talented I already was, or who I was destined to become, there was always somebody more accomplished or talented. That knowledge allowed me to be realistic about how I might best serve, and integrate with, top-shelf artists and projects. The life lessons for me were to be open to awesomeness and serendipity, and to appropriately behave in environments conducive to success. In hindsight, the Gilbert working relationship got off on the right foot because I offered to serve in such a way that I could confidently deliver the goods at the highest level. By contrast, I ultimately never worked with Baerwald because I showed him my weak link instead of my true strength. It’s cool, though, because that’s how you learn—and in my case the lessons stuck.
Hunter S. Thompson purportedly stated, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
One aspect of the negative side is the constant struggle for position and power. As we were coming up in the biz, many of us believed that we could not take a breather because, if we were to even briefly take a foot off the gas pedal, someone else would slither into the gap, possibly taking our place. Fourteen to sixteen hour work days were common. At times it felt like we were all throwing elbows to cram our way into an overpacked bus on a perilous mountain road to success.
As the years passed and my discography blossomed, I no longer felt the stifling pressure of being packed in a tin of sardines. The air became more clear as I climbed the hill, and I could finally see clear skies and vast horizons. There was room to spread my wings, and my veteran colleagues were actually friendly and supportive, in stark contrast to the treacherous thugs, thieves and liars crammed at the base of the climb.
During the 1990s and early 2000s there seemed to be plenty of work for accomplished record producers and engineers in Los Angeles. Records and demos were being recorded at commercial facilities, tape was being manufactured, pro audio rentals were booming, money was flowing, and an entire industry was thriving. Even if you spent three days a week on the phone or in meetings to hustle two days of paid work in the studio, you could live fairly well.
By 2008 the money belts had severely tightened, thanks to both internal and external factors. Music fans felt like they were getting shafted by major labels who released 12 song albums that contained one or two singles padded with ten tracks of filler. Relative to alternative choices of how to spend $16.98, an LP CD no longer seemed like such a good value. Piracy also contributed to the demise of the record business, as did the collapse of Wall Street, which incidentally cost me one of my indie labels, Fresh Baked Music LLC.
Freelance producers and engineers, along with recording studio managers, took extreme measures to get jobs in the pipeline. Fees took a nosedive as supply abruptly ballooned inversely to the declining demand for services. Fewer major label albums were being made, and recording funds shrunk. I clearly recall Interscope A&R man Tony Ferguson and I chatting over lunch about how new rock bands might get an $80,000 recording fund instead of the formerly commonplace $250,000…or sometimes $400,000 if the deal was competitive (i.e. a bidding war). Even superstar artists who might be worthy of a $1,000,000 recording fund were feeling the pinch by getting $250,000.
Needless to say, the neo pros at the bottom of the totem pole were getting squeezed out of the game. Meanwhile, the veterans were scrambling to reduce their cost of doing business and to get as many gigs as possible, including those that would have previously been too small to consider. Some guys went as far as saying just about anything (i.e. lying) to get a gig, unscrupulously damaging the careers of others along the way. Even though it is wrong, it is no surprise that desperate people become ruthless and conniving if that is what it takes to put food on the table. Therefore, it was quite refreshing whenever I saw potential rivals band together to create a rising tide that would cause all boats to float higher.
My friend Ronan Chris Murphy personifies this enlightened attitude of working with each other instead of against one another. Although his discography boasts such luminaries as King Crimson, Tony Levin and Ulver, Ronan has always remained indie friendly with respect to accessibility and flexible pricing. He shares his knowledge generously via his Recording Boot Camp workshops. He also created one of the first audio blogs and he enthusiastically hosts occasional recording expos that bring together top producers and engineers with aspiring pros looking to acquire knowledge and expand their networks.
Ronan and I organically evolved into fans and champions of each other. We have shared techniques and advice, we have recommended each other for jobs, and we modestly promote each other s special events on social media. While you, the reader, may perceive us as rivals, we think of each other as support. We are not worried about losing clients to one another. We have our own unique sense of aesthetics, so it is unlikely that an artist would pit one of us against the other. Instead of competing against each other, we focus on the positive, specifically rising the tide so that we rise with it. After all, there is plenty of room at the top
As a special treat, I was able to interview Ronan for this blog post. Enjoy the read! And if your star is rising in the record biz, remember to make friends instead of enemies, and to build bridges instead of walls.
MJ: Tell me about your enlightened way of thinking. Why are you so generous with, and supportive of, colleagues like me, who might appear to be rivals to an outsider?
RCM: Ha! I am not sure I get to call myself enlightened, despite the Buddha belly, but I have been around long enough to know that being a good member of a community is better than trying to go it alone. I think you and I virtually met years ago on the Gearslutz forum and we sort of bonded because we both had a really similar disposition of trying to share knowledge in a way that cut through the BS and approached advice from a practical real world perspective. Once we got to know each other in the real world we found that we had common approaches to music and work ethics and mostly that we could trust the ethics and the quality of each others work. As pros, we would love to do every project, but some of them might not be right for me that might be right for you, or one of us is too busy at a certain point. We are able refer gigs to each other and we even have clients that hire both of us at different times.
I guess the take away from all of this for people starting out is that you want to be competitive with other producers and engineers, but you also want to be supportive and not adversarial. My biggest gig this year was a referral from some one that I am technically a direct competitor with. He was offered the gig, but had some important family commitments at the time, so he recommended me because he knew I could do good work and that I would treat the client well. Right now I am working in Iceland and had to turn down a gig, but referred it to another engineer. It was actually some work that did not really have the budget for some one at our level, so I passed it to a younger engineer whose work I really trust.
You and I both do a lot of educational outreach, and there is nothing but good that comes from people learning from both of us. It is funny, you have been doing these cool events with our friend Rob Chiarelli (Will Smith, Christina Aguilera, P!nk). Rob and I both lecture every year at something called the Taxi Road Rally. He and I seem to have polar opinions on a few concepts and people will come up to me confused that I said something enthusiastically and Rob said the opposite enthusiastically, and they expect that to be some kind of drama. I always just tell them that that Rob is a bad ass mixer!! Go back to your studio and try both our ideas and see which one gets you the sounds you want or fits into your workflow better.
MJ: That is truly great advice. Rob and I did another event just last night with Jared Stansill at Pro Audio LA, and were laughing out loud because we answered a series of questions from opposite workflow perspectives! We were concerned that we would totally confuse the audience, who fortunately shared our amusement. The crowd was mostly pros, so they understood that there are many roads that lead to the same destination. You, Rob and I share the philosophy that education must train students to think analytically so that they are better equipped to make confident artistic decisions. Apropos of that…
Your powerful Recording Boot Camp workshops (even the ones in the beautiful rustic Italian villa!) are much more affordable than folks generally assume, probably due to the perception created by another well known mixing retreat that happens at a beautiful estate in France. Your Boot Camps provide a lot of value and they are empowering for anybody who wants to record themselves or others in the comfort of their own space, without the pressure of a ticking clock at an expensive commercial studio. Please briefly tell my readers why they might consider attending and where to find out more than this space allows.
RCM: Thanks. Yeah, I started one of the fist one week recording programs, and I have always tried to keep the rates really affordable. The truth is that my company can make fair money while keeping the prices down and I want to keep the classes small enough that students can get personalized attention. Most boot camps have a maximum of 4-6 students and we are cheaper than many options that allow 15-25 students into a class. I do not see any reason to make it harder or a lesser experience for the students if I am already making decent money.
But all that aside, the course I developed is all about mastering fundamentals at a deep level and the classic techniques that the great producers and engineers have been using for decades. We spend an entire day on compression because it is such a massively important creative tool that can do so much more than most people think. Some less experienced people do not realize that if you master a pretty small set of core concepts, you can move between jazz, pop, metal, country, etc with ease. It is all the same concepts applied differently. When I started the program back in 2003 I thought most of the students would be home recordists, but it is far more than that. I get a cool mix of hobbyists and pros and even some producers with major label credits.
MJ: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring recordists trying to catch a break, or for veterans who want to remain relevant in a constantly changing industry?
RCM: I think the biggest piece of advice I could give would be the same for both of those. In the end, this is a people business, and that is the case now more than ever. Especially these days when every other house has a studio in it, people no longer find a “studio” to book. People search out a guy or gal that they trust to do a good job taking care of their music. So, as much as we all love getting a new pre-amp or software updates, those are not the things that really get us clients…although they help us do better work once we have the clients. Having a connection with people is what gets clients. Get tapped into your local live music scene, or local houses of worship, or online communities. Anything you can do to get people to know and to trust you. Even though I do not get out to live shows as much as I would like these days, I have always been really active via online forums, Recording Boot Camp, Ronan’s Recording Show, Facebook, and by going to conferences and other events whenever I can. In an industry that is in decline my business is still fairly solid. I have friends that have bigger credits that I have, and in truth are probably more talented than I am, whose careers have completely died. I feel it is because they did not actively work to stay involved in the communities where jobs come from these days.
MJ: Thanks for taking part in this blog post, Ronan!
RCM: My pleasure. It is always a blast to do anything with you!
Nearly every electric guitarist has a love affair with effects pedals. Why? Because we’re always in search of more mojo, color and texture for our tone. Plus, as we imagine new sonic horizons with possibilities of soaring majestic delays or greasy fuzzed out dirt, it’s super fun to research the plethora of stomp box effects available today. The thrill of the hunt and the quest for sonic inspiration are powerfully seductive forces to us.
Roll-your-own pedal boards have been a staple of garage bands and local heroes for decades. After deciding which combination of effects will enhance or define your sound, your inner “tech” will be determined to wire everything together, plug in, and conquer the Colosseum. Unfortunately, typical DIY pedalboards are plagued by hum, hiss, noise and tone-suck. Each pedal may sound splendid on its own, but multiple pedals don’t always play nicely together.
Fortunately, the merciful Almighty Lord bestowed upon us Robert “Bob” Bradshaw to save the day. Bob, founder of Custom Audio Electronics (CAE), is famous for designing and building custom refrigerator-size, remote switching systems and compact pedalboards for touring and recording artists including U2’s The Edge, Police’s Andy Summers, Toto’s Steve Lukather and L.A. session cat Michael Landau.
Bob and I were introduced by mutual friend Gil Griffith, who at the time was VP of Marketing for Eventide. Gil, a talented musician in his own right, had the brilliant idea of getting Steve Vai to create 48 new, unique presets for the H3000 Harmonizer, which catapulted the product straight to the top of every pro guitarist’s wish list. Even more impressive than its meteoric rise to coveted status was the fact that the Harmonizer sold amazingly well, despite its $3000 price tag 25 years ago. Anyway, Gil asked me to demonstrate the H3000 at the 1993 NAMM Show, and he firmly nudged me to connect with Bob to get “Rackzilla” professionally wired by CAE.
Rackzilla, my 16-space “refrigerator” rack, consisted of instrument level amps and pedals, as well as line level “studio” effects that technically do not belong in the same system. To further complicate matters, some pedals needed to be mounted on the large pedalboard at my toes while others were able to reside on a tray inside the rack behind me. Some effects, like overdrive, were inserted between the guitar and the amp, while other FX, like delays and reverb, entered the signal path at the amp’s Effects Loop, which is located in between the guitar amplifier’s preamp and power section. Plus, there were long cable runs that were ready to dull my tone or to tune in to any one of SoCal’s local Mariachi radio stations. There was plenty of potential for a train wreck.
For the curious folks among us, among Rackzilla’s noteworthy pieces were a Mesa Triaxis MIDI controlled preamp, Mesa Strategy Stereo 2:90 power amp, CAE RS-10 foot controller, two CAE 4×4 audio loop switchers, CAE Black Cat Vibe, CAE Super Tremolo, Eventide Orville Harmonizer, Lexicon PCM80, assorted boutique stompbox pedal effects, wah, volume and expression pedals.
A second compact “fly date” pedalboard-only alternative to Rackzilla was designed to interface with a small combo amp (Matchless DC30 or Mesa Mark 1 Reissue). It contained only what I considered to be essential at the time. Its signal flow in 1996 was Thru > Mesa V-Twin > Black Cat CAE Freddy Fuzz > Demeter Tremulator > Black Cat Vibe > CAE-modifed Vox Wah > Volume pedal > Delay True Bypass Loop (Boss DD-5) > to the Amp. Everything was powered by custom CAE 9V and 12V power supplies, with some strategically isolated taps to keep the tremolo and the digital delay quiet. The only changes I made to the board over the past 20 years are minor: V-Twin is now a Fulltone Full-Drive 2, the Boss digital delay is now an analog Maxon AD-80, there’s now a Sonic Research ST-300 Turbo Tuner, and I’ve added a Dunlop CAE MC-401 Boost/Line-Driver to serve as a bypassable buffer. When the effects are bypassed, the guitar tone through the pedalboard virtually identical to the sound of plugging directly into the front of the amplifier.
Depending on your perspective, my pedalboard is either simple or complex. I can assure you that my pre-CAE attempts to wire it were disastrous. The effects boxes looked pretty, but they were noisy when placed in close proximity on the board. Rather than wasting my life force on scaling a steep learning curve, I hired Bob to get it right for me so that I could get back to the business of making music instead of determining which offenders required isolated power taps or a change of scarce real estate. I didn’t mind paying his fee–you can always get more money, but you can never get back your time.
The pro tip here is to build a functional team of talented specialists. This practice allows you to focus on your strengths. Other specialists will fill in the gaps in your skill set, aptitude or temperament. Super producer Quincy Jones is a prime example of someone who utilizes the skills of all-star writers, engineers, musicians, arrangers, et al., to ensure that his joints are the best they can possibly be. If you’re not convinced, listen again to Michael Jackson’s Thriller or Off The Wall. Then read the list of credits. It’s akin to the Hall Of Fame. The workload is handled by a team, yet Quincy’s credit is undiluted. Next to Michael, Q is the star.
Applying this principle to a pedalboard, it makes sense to hire a specialist like CAE/Bob right away, before wasting your time, money and psychic energy. Cry over the money once instead of spending it twice! If you choose to take the DIY route, you may get lucky, but think about this: you should be playing your instrument and writing hit songs, not toiling with physics considerations like line vs instrument level, routing of audio vs power lines, sequence of pedals, buffer vs true bypass, switching logic, FX loops, power isolation, finicky germanium transistors, and much more. Wear leather pants, not a lab coat!
Long story short, Bob and his crew designed noise-free plug-and-play systems for me that were bombproof and idiot-proof. Both Rackzilla and my compact pedalboard traveled internationally without incident. A forklift punched a hole through Rackzilla before pushing it off the edge of an elevated loading dock, but the system functioned perfectly.
If I were to elaborate on why I continue to rely on Bob’s services and products in only two words, those words would be: confidence inspiring.
Bob was kind enough to answer a few questions. Good info for any guitarist who uses effects in the signal path…
MJ: What are your thoughts about the shift from rack systems to traditional pedalboards? Is there still a compelling reason to consider a rack system?
BB: Basically, we are at the mercy of the manufacturers that provide us with the tools we use to make music. When I started out around 1980, there were really only pedals to work with. I started implementing “rack mount” gear into guitar rigs because I was working with studio players here in Los Angeles who saw engineers using rack mounted outboard gear on the recordings they were working on, and wanted the same sounds in their rigs for themselves. I had to learn how to deal with level and impedances in order to get pedals and studio gear to play nice with each other. Manufacturers saw this trend, and started producing “rack mounted” gear specifically for guitar players and the “rack mount” boom was born.
Of course now, it’s back to pedals.You can’t really find decent rack mounted single purpose effects for guitar players being manufactured anymore. That stuff is all on the used market. What happened was, the manufacturers started squeezing too many effects into one chassis and quality went way down, and soon “rack” stuff got a bad rap. It is the same with everything: too much of a good thing, so the trend started tilting back to pedals. Also there is a size/weight difference here, as players started scaling back the size of their rigs. If you travel with your gear, you know what I mean. With rack mounted stuff, you are dealing with a standard size based on increments of 1.75” x 19” (no matter what is in the chassis) vs. a pedal chassis which could be any size. Then there is instant gratification and we all want that! It is much more fun to grab a knob and turn it, than it is to scroll through menus, etc. And a pedal for the most part represents a much smaller investment too. You can buy a pedal for $200 or so, where a rack mounted piece may cost you $800 or more.
Today there are many pedals that rival their “rack mounted” counterparts in terms of sound quality and flexibility. But don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of bad pedals out there now as well. To me, there is no difference in building a rack vs a pedalboard. The signal still has to get from point A to point B relatively unmolested (unless you want to screw it up!). Signal doesn’t care if it goes through a rack or a pedalboard.
MJ: Who needs a loop switcher (programmable or not) on a pedalboard, and who can get by with an inline true-bypass rig?
BB: Anybody that cares about the quality of their un-affected sound. I maintain that a well designed loop system stands a better chance of retaining your original guitar signal than daisy chaining your pedals together.Even if all your pedals have “true bypass”. This is because a loop system bypasses not only your pedals,but the cables connecting them too! And proper buffering at select points in the signal chain is important too, loop system or not. If you just have a few pedals, you can probably get away without a loop system, as they do add to the size/weight of your board.
But generally speaking in any case, buffers somewhere in the signal path are essential.
MJ: Are you concerned about digital clock noise in a primarily analog signal path?
BB: That has never been a big concern for me. I am more concerned with 60hz. hum!
MJ: Anything newsworthy you’d like to share?
BB: Trends come and go. While I may be best known for large elaborate systems (many of which are “rack mounted”) I have also pioneered smaller programmable pedal based systems that are easily as powerful as any rack . And they come in a wide variety of sizes and are not as expensive as you might think. The latest is called the RST-LS which contains 10 mono bypass loops, 4x switchable outputs and 2x Control Functions. It contains mono and stereo audio inserts for patching in devices that don’t require bypass loops, and is a full function midi controller. I also have coming in the fall an expression control pedal which automates your existing expression pedal with separate rate and depth controls and tap tempo. It is called AutoSweep.
When inspiration strikes, do you ever think you should make your idea a reality? Why don’t you make it happen? If only you had more time, more money or less stress…
Don’t worry–you’re not alone. Our first-world lifestyles are in many respects defined by the myriad responsibilities that compete for our life force. Most of us cannot afford to commit to a grand endeavor simply because of its inherent coolness factor, so we tend to factor ROI (return on investment) into our risk-based decisions. There is nothing wrong with that–it’s simply reality. But it is also a huge obstacle to self-realization, the fulfillment of one’s own potential.
While there are many strong reasons to not take action, some intrepid souls find a way to rise above the words “if only” and then do something terrific. They do it not for the money, but rather because it’s cool…and because they can.
I’m writing this blog post with the hope that it may inspire some of us to step outside our comfort zones and make something beautiful before our lives become even more complicated and our burdens even heavier. Whatever you choose to do, do it because you want to, not because you need a payday. Its manifestation should be its own reward. That way, you can’t lose. Plus, you just might win. Maybe win big.
Here’s a brief list of self-realized things that some of my friends are currently doing, just because they can.
Zoo Labs is a music and tech “incubator” founded by altruists/philanthropists Vinitha and Dave Watson. Their excellent two-week music residency at their state-of-the-art, in-house recording studio not only results in a record release, but also in “scaffolding” from which recording artists can launch their next career phase in a meaningful accelerated manner. The Watson crew has put together a team of forward thinking geniuses who provide highly relevant workshops along with a resident gourmet chef. Their ROI is not measured in dollars–it’s all about doing something special for the good of humanity.
Rob Chiarellihas approximately 100 Gold Records and 16 Grammy nominations on his discography. He works as a producer and/or mix engineer with superstar artists ranging from Christina Aguilera and Will Smith to Janet Jackson and Madonna. While Rob is in constant demand, he somehow manages to do things that are important to his family–and to up-and-coming recording professionals in need of guidance. Rob and I both believe in giving back (or paying forward), so we frequently team up to do workshops, seminars, master classes and Q&A sessions for music schools, pro audio retailers and manufacturers. We do it because we can, and because the act of service to others is a vital part of our spiritual and philosophical belief system.
The relationship of Walter Heath to his music is an excellent example of doing something because it is intrinsically cool. He was signed to a major label record deal in the early ’70s, and recorded a funky soulful album, You Know You’re Wrong Don’t Ya Brother, produced by L.A. session ace Louis Shelton, featuring the hottest studio cats of the era. Today Walter performs and records music with the express goal of inspiring himself and others to deepen their spirituality by setting Baha’i prayers, meditations and virtues to melodic tunes. Music weaves through his life like DNA through his body. I have seen firsthand how powerful a unifying tool his singing is as it draws together seemingly disparate cultural groups. Check out his tasty home-brewed CD from 2009, Praise His Name, for some nourishment for the soul.
The Invisible Man (Sam Martinez, Jaben Pennell and Tim Torgerson) is a Contemporary Christian band whose ministry takes it literally around the world, instruments in hand. The darlings of the 1998 EAT’M Festival, its members have since found a balance of secular and spiritual pursuits. Torgerson and Martinez are local-hero, working-class family men who enrich their communities with not only their musicality, but also their mentoring skills. Pennell juggles being a single father of two with his fulltime gig as a record producer and session musician. A human vortex of energy, he also teaches recording techniques and A/V courses at Judson University as an adjunct professor. Pennell founded Vibehouse Productions as a passion to serve indie artists outside the metropolitan Chicago area, but thanks to one of his records winning 2013 Golden Melody Awards (Chinese equivalent of Grammy) Album Of The Year, it turned into his bread and butter.
The underlying theme of these four examples is that they were all done without financial reward as a consideration. Therefore, they were done with a purity of purpose and, one might say, artistic integrity. Inspiration happened, and these folks sprung into action. They created their own unique musical versions of the Watts Towers: the creation may look crazy to an outside investor, but the artistic manifestation is its own reward.Just like a life well lived!
Jaben Pennell of The Invisible Man and Vibehouse Productions.
Even John Lennon knew that The Beatles had to be entertainers—the point was made early when the very green Beatles were ordered to Mach Schau! Mach Schau! by a Hamburg club-owner in their early days on the Reeperbahn. From making motion pictures to prancing around in tights, the most beloved and emotionally resonant rock band in history did what needed to be done to entertain the fans, who in turn supported the band with fierce loyalty and devotion.
Nearly 20 years ago Dan Rothchild introduced me to virtuoso guitarist David Michael Weiss. Dave at the time fronted SlackJaw (aka SlackJaw Blues Band), who, despite their prodigious musical talent, remained unsigned. All the requisite elements were in place: good songs, serious chops, tight band and commanding vocals. So why weren’t they signed? Probably because they relied exclusively on the music. As far as I know, David and his crew didn’t spend their time mugging for the camera while dressed like Peter Pan or Robin Hood. Surely some photos would have surfaced by now.
Because I dug both the music and the human being, I signed David to my production company, Alternator Records, and planned to include him in a joint venture label deal with RCA Records. Everything was in place for a successful career to launch–until the RCA brass killed the deal, presumably as a byproduct of an impending corporate reorganization. Whatever the reason, Slackjaw Dave was again without a clear roadmap to domination of the Top 40 charts.
So he moved to New York, armed with a Telecaster and an early Matchless DC30 with the fabled green transformer. Interesting factoid: I bought that amp from Greg Lake of ELP before playing it on A.J. Croce’s Transit and New Radicals’ Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too, and eventually sold it to David because he made it sound much better than I ever could! But that’s another story for another time.
Fifteen years later Dave resurfaced in my life. He hadcracked the musician-as-entertainer code by seamlessly blending smoking hot chops with redneck comedy lyrics and an over-the-top, politically insensitive persona known as Travis Whitelaw. He hooked up with producer and co-writer Joel Shelton to compose and record the album Sexarkana!, which was wellreceived by fans and critics alike and garnered tremendous airplay on XM-Sirius (the only airplay obtainable in light of those pesky FCC regulations for the very “blue” material). The downside, if there was one, was that Travis was so over-the-top and one-dimensional that the joke could easily become old…or convincing. Apropos of that, Dave told me, “Funny and true story: the first time I met Shannon was at a Travis gig where she COMPLETELY bought the shtick and thought I was an actual potty-mouthed redneck. She loved it. I was very proud of the fact that I had fooled a genuine Southerner with my Travis routine.”
Rather than running the risk of overstaying his welcome by allowing the persona to overshadow the person, Travis asked David to re-emerge and assume guitar, vocal and co-writer duties in a super-tight country-rock outfit called Trailer Radio, led by West Virginia spitfire and bona-fide coal miner’s daughter Shannon Brown. Trading the id-driven redneck satire for a clever urbanhillbilly shtick, the new band provides a platform for David to showcase his 6-string badassery within the context of an American subculture rich in tradition, tall tales, and culinary delights (boll weevils for dinner?!) as far from Manhattan’s dirty water dogs and thin crust pizza as is imaginable.
Where Travis Whitelaw’s entertainment value is rooted in shock, Trailer Radio’s appeal is in its humanity. The protagonists of TR’s songs are regular folks who find themselves in uncomfortable yet plausible situations. It’s easy to love Trailer Radio’s lead singer, Shannon Brown, when she sings in “Tar Beach” of a rooftop Manhattan summer “staycation” cobbled together from modest resources: “We don’t need no Disney cruise, we can climb up on the roof, drop a lawnchair and a cooler on Tar Beach.” She knows her lane, and she knows how to work it.
Same goes for the completely confused fellow, courtesy of Dave’s spirited vocal delivery, living in the doghouse in [My Heart Is On] “The Bottom Of Her Boots.” You can’t help but feel compassion for the guy as he announces, “Holy crap, she’s flipped her lid, I don’t know just what I did, my recliner’s gone, remote’s been hid, my clothes are on the lawn.” Poor guy…his woman crushed his heart, painted his man cave pink and pawned his shotgun along with her wedding ring. But impossibly he seems radiant in his acquiescence to his fate. There’s a price to be paid for every good story, and Dave’s character revels in the narrative, which makes the ride a fun one for the rest of us.
I’m pretty sure that Trailer Radio’s current success is based on much more than blazing riffs and catchy songs. This band is not afraid of holing up in the woodshed. Their sophomore effort, Country Girls Ain’t Cheap, is clearly the result of a well oiled machine that fine tuned its tightly crafted, hook-laden songs both in private and on countless merciless New York stages. Like the Fab Four, TR understands that folks like to be entertained.
If there’s a life lesson in today’s blog post for recording artists and producers, I suppose it would be to practice one’s entertainment skills as much as one’s artistry. When we make folks feel good about themselves, they reward us with their continued presence in our lives and businesses. Have fun, open up, and live fearlessly!
Rebecca Ebhardt interviewed me for Glyph last year. Rather than focus on technology, she chose to get into philosophy, motivation and pragmatism. I am pasting the piece below because it contains solid info for anybody coming up in the music business, as well as for veterans who want to remain relevant.
Plus, if you know me personally, you may learn something new about me. Enjoy the read!
Interview With The Talented Michael James On Producing, Finding Success, And The Roads That He Took To Get Where He Is Today
By Rebecca Ebhardt
How Did You Start Producing And What Gave You The Motivation To Continue?
Short answer is “I was in the right place at the right time.”
The story behind the answer is more complex. I was an emancipated minor at age 14 and mostly homeless for about six years. I saw my way out of that kind of life by endeavoring to be an athlete or scholar. I was hell-bent on earning a scholarship and I got a full ride to UCLA. I loved writing songs at the time. I was writing a lot of poetry and thought it would be cool to turn my poems into songs. I picked up guitar and began learning jazz. Two years later, at age 19, I landed my first record deal, the result of a $15 demo tape. I had some hits on college radio, which as that time was a big deal–it was vibrant and meaningful, and contributed to the success of some great bands like REM and U2. One day my manager showed me one particular chart that listed four of my songs in the top 10. That was pretty cool, even though I had no clue how to leverage the buzz into greater success. I thought I was going to be a famous rock star. But, by age 25 I was washed up, and then at 26 I accidentally produced a hit record for NY rockers Too Much Joy. It began as in indie release before it was picked up by Irving Azoff’s major label Warner-funded venture, Giant Records. Giant had me add a couple more songs, made a video featuring LL Cool J, and I was off to the races!
My motivation to continue through all the ups and downs is simply that I love making records with creative geniuses who view our world from a different perspective that we mere mortals do. If this wasn’t my job, it would be my hobby. It’s an exciting way to spend the precious hours of my life.
The record business is portrayed in the media as glamorous, but it can be brutal and merciless. Even if you were born with prodigious talent, you need to devote countless hours to developing your God-given talent. And I’m no exception, even after 34 years. Although I was in the right place at the right time–more accurately, in the right place enough times–whenever I have a day I’m not booked, I still go to work and I woodshed new techniques. I keep a list of mix-related problems that I’ve encountered, and I work through them to add to my bag of tricks.
In the early 2000’s, when Pro Tools became ubiquitous, I embraced the new digital technology, and developed the skills to be equally competent in both the analog and digital domains. Early 2002 I made the jump to full time mix specialist. Now I typically mix a song a day, 250-ish days per year. I love the work and the lifestyle. As long as there are innovative artists and technologies in the pipeline, I’ll continue to be motivated.
Did You Have Any Doubts That You Would Be Successful?
No. I didn’t have a safety net, so I couldn’t afford to fail. At UCLA, I was initially a pre med major and realized I was very unfulfilled by traveling such a rigid predetermined path. When I realized I was a creative improvisor, I walked away for a bit and focused solely on music. It pretty much fell in my lap (though I had to work hard), but I did return to UCLA and switched to Third World Development Studies. I was thinking the whole time “why am I doing this? I am not going to work for Peace Corps, World Bank or IMF.” I realized I loved music and it’s a God-given gift–not everyone has this opportunity, so I figured I’d see where it goes. My only other distraction at the time was racing bicycles–I raced at the world championships once, but racing was my avocation, not my bread and butter gig. It was a fun to contrast to the crazy record business.
How Did You Build Contacts And/Or Clients?
By age 25, I realized my artist career ran it course, but by 26, I was a producer with a hit. In the interim, I decided to become a session guitarist and keyboard & drum programmer. I was pretty good, but there was a snag: I didn’t have a car so I was relying on other people to give me rides to get to the studio. One of my buddies was billing $350 a day as an engineer, and splitting it with a recording studio 50/50. I thought, “Hey man, I want that, I can really get ahead making $1k a week”. At that time I was still attending UCLA by day, so I would go to the recording studio after midnight with my night-owl friends. They would play their instruments and get free recording time while I learned how to use all of the recording equipment. I was eventually ready to work prime time sessions.
Bands who recorded at our studio, Radio Tokyo, got great results at affordable prices. We didn’t care about how much we earned; we just wanted to get in the game and prove that we could play ball as well as the big leaguers. I was basically the guy who was working inexpensively for $35/hr. for these bands who didn’t have a pot to piss in. These were bands like Jane’s Addiction, Jawbreaker, The Bangles, et al. Consistent results and a fun, exciting working environment ensured the development of solid relationships. Eventually I just got a great reputation where word of mouth took over and I was booked 8 months in advance. It was never about money. If I make people feel good about their art, they’ll come back again and again, plus they’ll refer their friends. I’ve been working with some artists since 1984. That said, I’m always out there meeting new people and exploring new challenges. You must regularly reinvent yourself and refresh your skill set because when you fail to evolve, you go the way of the dinosaur.
What Are Some Of The Biggest Mental Tools You Can Obtain To Be Successful In This Field?
First: Let it go if someone doesn’t like you. Always treat people with respect and do your work with integrity and a high standard of excellence. Do that, and you’ll sleep well at night with the knowledge that, if there’s a problem, it’s not due to anything you did. Avoid dwelling on the haters; instead focus on the folks who appreciate and love you.
Second: Let it go if someone doesn’t like one of your epically awesome ideas. Just say, “Alright, no problem,” and mentally file the idea for future usage. You’ll have a new tool in your bag of tricks. No good idea is ever wasted. One day there will be a perfect opportunity to use it.
Third: Remember that it’s not your record, it’s the artist’s music. My goal is not to impress my engineer friends, but rather to impress the artists. They need to know that I’m helping support their vision, not mine. Nowadays I don’t have to think creating a testosterone driven “Kick Drum of Doom & Remorse” sound as much as I think about serving the artist. Treat their craft with respect and make the listener focus on the song and the emotion of the song, not the kick drum that will blow your colleagues’ minds.
Fourth: KEEP IT FUN! If you aren’t having fun, you won’t inspire artists to continue working with you. You’ll live a healthier life, and you will attract others with your positive energy.
If You Can Come Up With The One Habit That Could Possibly Ruin Or Stall A Person’s Career, What Would That Downfall Be?
Two things: Bullshit and disrespect. Always be truthful, humble, attentive and courteous. It’s a privilege to work with an artistic genius, so be present and don’t take any opportunity for granted.
Maintaining A Successful Career Takes A Lot Of Work And Commitment. How Much Time Do You Dedicate To Your Work?
My life and my work are commingled. I absolutely LOVE what I do, so my work is integral to the person I am at the core. It doesn’t define me, but it permeates everything to some degree. I work 250-ish days a year, and shoot for 8 hour days. Even if a mix takes only half that time, there’s plenty of ancillary work to be done, from taking meetings and generating sales to woodshedding new techniques. Same net hours as a full-time job, but more flexibility… When I leave the studio, however, my brain shifts out of work mode and into “balanced life” mode.
Is There An Artist You Want To Work With That You Have Not Yet Had The Chance To?
Where do I begin? (Laughs out loud.) My favorite artists with whom I haven’t worked: Neil Finn from Crowded House, the guys from Steely Dan, Jonatha Brooke. There is another artist who I hope reads this; Butterfly Boucher – she did a cover of Bowie’s “Changes” for the Shrek soundtrack. I met her in person and I remixed a couple singles for her when she was an Interscope artist. She’s a consummate musician and arranger with prodigious talent and a unique point of view. She really gets it.
What Is Your Favorite Equipment To Work With, And What Makes It Reliable And Easy?
Favorite brands that give me a competitive advantage when I’m mixing:
Manley Labs, Dangerous Music, Chandler Limited, Tonelux, Avalon and Empirical Labs make the indispensable analog stuff for me. Focal Professional makes my studio monitors. Tom Anderson builds my guitars; Mesa/Boogie builds most of my amps (I’m using six of them in the studio today!), but I also play a rare George Alessandro High-End English amp and I’m really into Joe Morgan’s custom shop stuff. On the digital side, Pro Tools HDX, SoundToys and UAD plugins, and Eventide Harmonizers are essential to me. Those things are consistently reliable, plus I have developed relationships with the people involved, who encourage feedback to constantly improve their products. Some of those people, like Bob Muller at Dangerous, EveAnna at Manley, and Paul Wolff (ex-Tonelux and API) solve problems long before I become aware of them. I’ve been known to pick up the phone and ask those guys if they have a solution to a problem, and they’ve already built it into a piece of gear that’s been living in my studio for several years.
I’ve used several brands of hard drives, but my go–to for the past 14 years have been Glyph. I must have had two dozen 10,000 rpm Cheetahs that I would hot-swap as needed. They were so bomb proof that I didn’t retire them until 2-3 years ago. I was supplementing with GT series, because I could run less expensive 7200 rpm drives and get virtually the same performance as the Cheetahs. I have dozens of GTs in the studio.
My current preference is the new Glyph Studio series. I love using the Studio Mini and the Studio RAID. I have three 1TB Minis because they spin at 7200 rpm and they are buss powered via USB. They’re robust and convenient in the field with a laptop; they’re conducive to pre-mixing tracks on a plane. I’m actually working off of them instead of merely transferring and archiving. In my control room, I have three Studio RAIDs. They inspire confidence because I know my solid backup plan is immediately more robust and the drives handle whatever I throw at them. I don’t need multiple work drives anymore with my Pro Tools sessions; I stripe RAID 1 on the 4TB and 8TB devices. The data are simultaneously written to two different hard drives. If one fails, I can send it to Glyph for hassle-free recovery and repair or replacement. At the end of the day I back up to 3 different places. If it’s something I care about, it has to be in 3 different places.
It gives me peace of mind to work with Glyph. I expect all hard disk drives to fail eventually, but there’s no need to worry or stress about it. I use and rely on Glyph so that I can proactively evolve rather than passively sitting around like a dinosaur waiting for the meteor to hit.
4:31 AM. January 17, 1994. The world must be coming to an abrupt end. The magnitude 6.7 earthquake is shaking Agoura Hills, California like a speed-addled Mariachi’s rattle. I jump out of bed and instinctively wrap Irina in the down comforter, pulling her safely away from the large window that could shatter at any moment. She, being a California native, groggily mutters, “Let me go back to sleep… It’s just another earthquake.”
I should note that, contrary to what we’re told, doorways are not necessarily the safest place to be during a large earthquake. They may be structurally reinforced, but that does not prevent them from swinging wildly and unpredictably. They could have easily broken an arm or chopped one of our cats in half.
Meanwhile, Don Alfredano, newly relocated to the San Fernando Valley from Boston, was having the pleasure of experiencing his first earthquake. Don and I had recently completed a big project for an update to the Eventide Harmonizer. That job was focused on guitar tones, so we developed a bunch of presets using a stereo Mesa/Boogie Triaxis rig. Don had the rig, which included two separate 1×12 speaker cabinets, set up to the side of his bed so that he could play guitar until falling asleep.
With a wall on the opposite side of the bed, and wall-mounted cabinets above it, Don was essentially sandwiched like a hotdog. So, at 4:31 AM, when the sound of Armageddon rudely awakened him, he jumped up and whacked his head on the cabinets, then spun around and fell backwards in the dark over one of the speakers. He stumbled outside to find that the swimming pool had bona fide waves. Welcome to California, baby!
A good story always has a price tag. I wish you could have heard Don tell the story first hand. He’s such a good story teller that Irina and I were in tears, and our abdomens literally hurt from “creasing” (being folded over as a result of profound laughter). As much as I despise the concept of Schadenfreude, I must admit that Don’s high-wire circus act during the quake evoked the vision of a ballet gone terribly wrong, as if it were danced on a seesaw.
The thing about earthquakes is that you never see them coming, and they can change your life in an instant. They can be like a glassy smooth freeway: open road for miles with no obstacles—until you find yourself launching over the edge of a cliff.
Don was cruising along in the diamond lane, destined for some exciting new chapters. He hung up his guitar and shifted his focus to writing. His first critically acclaimed book, Be Strong, Be Tough, Be Smart, was about raising his autistic son, who is now a renowned astrophysicist. He opened a resort in Portugal’s hip Algarve and eventually returned to the USA where he became a local government official. Life was looking bright!
And then one day, completely out of the blue, the road dropped out from underneath him. With the political environment and government oversight beginning to rain down on him, Donleft the USA andtook a teaching job in Europe. Eventually, he got a call from his attorney who informed him that he was all over the news—and not in a good way.The gravity of the ordeal was serious enough that when Don asked his attorney what to do, the attorney said, “You might want to consider staying overseas.”
Don made arrangements to fly back to the USA to voluntarily hand himself over to the authorities, and for him to meet his wife and her attorney at the airport before putting his affairs in order during the subsequent 48 hours. Instead he was immediately handcuffed upon landing, and hurled headfirst into a surreal WTF! odyssey. His gesture of good faith was not sufficient to keep him from serving time at the infamous Rikers Island.
I really can’t equate Don’s incarceration experience to anything in my life. Fortunately, not many of us can. But I’d bet we all know something about bad choices and decisions. We’ve all made a few. Sometimes things that look, feel, or sound right at the time, turn out to be something entirely different when we look in the rear view mirror.Some call it 20/20 hindsight. It’s just a fact that in our daily lives and within the parameters of our careers, we are faced with choices. Some seem simple and obvious, and some have serious repercussions.On the other hand, some things are just accepted practice, “par for the course,”and are considered “a given.” In other words, the lines are often blurred. Here’s an example:
I consider Don’s scenario to be a lot like the cross-collateralization that happens in the recording and publishing industries.It is “a given.” The mindsetis that you do what you gotta do to get things done, and in the end, it will “all work itself out in the wash.”
Bureaucratic red tape is often the enemy of getting things done in a timely manner. That said, the law is the law, so public servants need to be especially diligent to remain beyond reproach and to withstand intense scrutiny.Don owns and accepts responsibility for his transgression. That’s why he flew back to New York to face the music and serve time in prison as a middle-aged man. Despite being a gentle, thoughtful, well-educated poet and musician, he chose to dwell behind bars with thugs and gang bangers rather than to live on the run, far away from his family and loved ones.
Even the darkest day can have a silver lining, if you know where to look for it. Don channeled his angst into a new multimedia book and record album about his experience within the penal system so that the rest of us remember to pay attention to our choices and to avoid a pivotal indiscretion that can lead down a slippery slope. The book, Real Men Wear Beige, is a terrific and exciting read that I could not put down. A compelling story told in 142 pages, it was easy to digest in one sitting. I loved it because Don found humanity and love in between all of the adrenaline rushes.
The accompanying soundtrack music album is filled with top quality, catchy songs, and features guest appearances from notable luminaries such as Corey Glover from Living Color and Paul Pesco from Hall & Oates. Master craftsman Paul Orofino engineered it. I mixed it, and also had the pleasure of producing and playing gritty slide guitar on a “Swamp Mix” (see track #9 on the Spotify playlist) of the title track, this time sung by Alfredano instead of Glover. The soundtrack lyrics are woven throughout the book, so the music is integral to the story, rather than an afterthought. As an example, when I listen to the song “The Concrete Is My Only Friend,” I can almost feel the cold hard surface on which Don was finally able to fall sleep, his only escape from the incarceration nightmare that was fast becoming his new reality.
So many people believe that they are “over the hill” after a certain age. Don, however, seems to have tapped into his youth, revitalized his music, and gotten a new lease on life. We should all be so lucky to not flinch or bail out when life throws us a wicked curveball that looks like it’s coming straight at us.
Hats off to Don Alfredano for rising above the destruction that could have defined the second half of his life. Just as he did after the ’94 Northridge earthquake, he sifted through the rubble and began rebuilding.
I played the tiny 8 Watt Lockard 187 head via a Mesa CabClone without a speaker or mic for the slide guitar parts on the Swamp Mix.
This January 17, 1994 photo shows the covered body of Los Angeles Police Officer Clarence Wayne Dean, 46, near his motorcycle which plunged off the State Highway 14 overpass that collapsed onto Interstate 5, an interchange that is now named in his memory. Dean was reporting to work in the predawn darkness and apparently never saw the collapsed bridge. # AP Photo/Doug Pizac