My Day With The 5th Beatle: A Mini Celebration of Sir George Martin

Pepper 2
Produced by George Martin. As a kid, I commandeered the Sgt. Pepper cutouts from my parents’ album cover.

Sir George Martin was one of the most respected record producers in history. Much more than “the fifth Beatle”, Sir George also produced landmark albums by Jeff Beck, America, Ultravox and Peter Sellers. His passing this week has saddened countless music fans and professionals who cite his productions as a major part of the soundtrack to their lives.

I’m not alone when I say that I modeled my producer skill set after his. George knew music inside and out, and could do anything from composing and arranging to playing multiple instruments and providing the voice of reason. Plus he brought out the best in his artists, inspiring them to constantly raise the bar.

I’m an industrial-strength Beatles fan. Have been since 1967, when I cut out the cardboard mustache, sergeant stripes, badges and other accessories from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album artwork. Not sure my parents appreciated my initiative or industriousness, but I had fun. And I’ll bet I looked pretty stylish for a wee tricyclist pedaling around the sidewalks of Farmingdale, New York. To this day I still have a soft spot for epaulets, although Jimi Hendrix’s affinity for “the look” may have contributed to my fondness.

A year after Pepper, I clearly remember the day that the band’s next album was released. In 1968, I was six years of age, sitting in the backseat of what was about to reveal itself as a getaway car. My mother’s boyfriend Frankie told Mom, my brother Eddie and me to wait in the car while he ran an errand with his buddy. Several minutes later, he bolted from a Macy’s department store shooting a handgun while disguising himself with a nylon stocking over his face. His buddy didn’t make it to the car.

Did I mention that the car, a brand new metallic gold Plymouth Barracuda, belonged to my father, who rode the train to work? Or that Frankie often stole my model airplane glue so that he could get high sniffing it from a paper bag? Or that he ran a red light, totaled the muscular fish, and sent six people to the hospital?

Frankie did have at least one redeeming quality: he too was a Beatles fan. Apparently more committed than I, because I would never consider armed robbery an appropriate method to procure a coveted new release. The Beatles, aka the White Album, was the crown jewel in Frankie’s sack of liberated loot.

I always loved The Beatles’ records. Their inventive arrangements, underlying lyrical themes of love, psychedelic sitars, gritty yet pretty guitars, and lush vocal harmonies emotionally resonate with me. Today, when I close my eyes, their music transports me to another realm. If there’s an underlying theme to my work as a producer, it’s to achieve a meaningful connection between the song and the listener, which the Beatles did so effectively. Thus, it should come as no surprise that George Martin’s work was so inspirational to me.

As much as I would have loved to work with The Beatles, it seemed like I was often just one degree of separation from the guys. My friends David Kahne and Gregg Bissonette work with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, respectively, and acquaintances Abe Laboriel, Jr. and Rusty Anderson are members of Macca’s touring band.

In 1998, I came as close as I ever would to meeting the guys. Irina (my wife) and I spent a day with George Martin. The experience still left me a degree removed from the Fab Four, but was just as gratifying for me!

Enter the talented drummer Peter Bunetta, who was known for producing the one-hit-wonder (“Break My Stride”) recording artist & multi-platinum (No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom) producer/songwriter Matthew Wilder. Peter and I had just met each other, and were having a great time hanging out at the EAT’M (Emerging Artists and Talent in Music) festival, where I was moderating the Producers Panel. Peter is a super nice guy, and he’s generous with his connections in the record business. So, when David Cassidy (who will forever be Keith Partridge in my mind) arrived, Peter said, “Let’s ask David to introduce us to George!”

“Uh, okay,” was all I could muster with my outside voice. Meanwhile, my unfiltered inside voice was screaming, “Oh my God, is this really happening? I’m going to meet George Martin!”

Keith–oops, I mean David–guided us past security, deep into the inner sanctum where we attained the presence of the master, who was also the keynote speaker of the event. I remember the moment with crystal clarity.

David: “George, meet Peter and Michael.”

Sir George: “With pleasure.” (Extends hand to shake ours.)

Peter: (Instantly transforms into giddy fanboy, and overzealously grabs the legend’s right hand with what I would characterize as…ramming speed!) “George, I can’t even begin to describe how much your work has influenced and inspired me! I know it’s creepy that I’m not letting go of your hand, but I promise I will as soon as I finish basking in the moment.”

Irina and I were amused and amazed that we were watching the legendary producer of Sgt. Pepper attempting to yank his hand free from Peter’s determined clutch! George had a slight expression of horror on his face. It was like the face of a celebrity who comes to the realization that he’s just become ensnared in the terrifying web of a stalker. Despite the awkwardness of the moment, I must admit that it was hilarious!

When Peter finally released George, it was my turn for a handshake. I’ve learned that you only have one chance to make a first impression, so I made a point of not blowing it.

Me: “It’s a pleasure to meet you George. Are you cool if we do a regular handshake instead of an extended one?”

Sir George: (Heartily laughs.) “I would very much appreciate that, Michael! And the pleasure is mine.”

The first thing I noticed about Sir George was his impeccable posture. He was tall, well groomed, and a true gentleman. He appeared to be well aware of his legendary achievements and celebrity status, but he was remarkably warm and welcoming. He made Peter, Irina and me feel like we were longtime friends.

Over the course of the day, we chatted about various subjects. Among them were his upcoming retirement, his genuine affection for “the boys” or “the lads” (John, Paul, George and Ringo), the adventurous creative spirit of Sgt. Pepper, and the desire of the boys to rise above their differences and make their swan song, Abbey Road, be a fitting high-note to the band’s legacy.

During Sir George’s keynote speech, he told a humorous story of being lectured by his bosses at Parlophone Records. They said, “Martin, we’ve reviewed a list of the records you made last year, and we’ve discovered that most of them lose money. Stop making those ones! From now on, only produce the ones that will be profitable.” If you’re in the record business, you’re well aware that Parlophone’s mandate was ridiculous because there is no way to accurately predict how well art will perform in a commercial marketplace.

The biggest takeaway from my day with George was to make records that I genuinely enjoy, and to make them with excellence. That makes a lot of sense because we artists and producers honestly don’t know whether a record is going to be a hit or a flop. What we do know, however, is that some other people have similar tastes in music to ours, and those folks will likely dig the same stuff we do. We owe it to ourselves to make records that we’ll enjoy forever, regardless of commercial success or failure. For that enlightenment and commitment to excellence, I thank you, Sir George Martin. May your soul rest in peace, and may your legacy shine a light on the world forever.

Pepper 1
Thanks to Sir George for giving “the boys” the opportunity to shine and to reinvent themselves every year from 1962-70.
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Every Minute Counts 

If today were to be my last, it would have been a good one.

For some people, happiness is a tiny dot in a perfect storm. For me, it’s a choice that I make every day, both at work and in my personal life. I love my job, but I also love my life outside the studio.

Because I want to cram a universe worth of experiences into a finite number of years, I’ve devised a number of timesavers that make me highly efficient and productive in the recording studio. Some are elaborate and expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars, while others are as simple as $49 utility apps and home brewed mix templates that don’t cost a dime.

Before I share some of these efficiency tips with you, let’s talk about why this concept is so important to me. We could discuss last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, but instead let’s keep it local because it is easier to relate to something that could happen to you, me or our loved ones.

Mark Scott is a USA National Champion bicycle racer who is the icon of health and fitness. He has taken such good care of his body that I could imagine cold and flu bugs being too scared to make his acquaintance. He is the opposite of feeble: he is Thor, and his bicycle is his hammer.

Apparently cancer did not get the memo. It arrived uninvited, like so many other surprises in our lives. Mark is now fighting for his life, trying to beat leukemia. He has a positive attitude, but he desperately needs a compatible bone marrow donor. I sincerely hope that he recovers and lives a long happy life, but the reality is that any day could be his last.

If I were Mark, I would not want to waste a single minute. Things like being stuck in traffic, waiting for a slowly loading Internet page, or fixing auto correct typos on an iPhone would drive me crazy. Even being blessed with exceptionally good health, I’m well aware that I am nearly three quarters of the way through my four score. That’s why being efficient in the studio, especially with respect to technical, noncreative tasks, it is so important to me. I want to experience as much self-realized “outside” life as possible. Every minute truly does count.

Creating custom recording and mixing templates for yourself is a great way to speed up your workflow and get better results. In the digital domain, you can save templates inside the DAW. They should contain your routing, effects, preferences, etc. In the analog domain, you can configure your patchbay to always accommodate the lead vocal on a particular console channel, the bass DI and amp on another two faders, the drums on a particular set, and so on. Ideally you would have your favorite compressors and EQs ready to go on the appropriate channels. Templates can save you literally hours of work every day. Plus they help you to get into a creative headspace more quickly.

Utility apps can also be a huge timesavers. One of my favorites is StereoMonoizer by Soundizers. It quickly and effortlessly deals with one of my pet peeves: analyzing stereo audio files to determine if they are in fact mono. Think about it… Sometimes clients will send me 120 audio tracks, all apparently stereo as a result of the export process. It can take hours to meticulously listen to every one in order to determine that 90% of the files are really mono. StereoMonoizer does this for me, and makes the conversion to mono where appropriate, in a matter of minutes. The $49 price tag bought me not just a cool tool, but also more free time to do other things I love with people I love. Hats off to Blake Eiseman for giving me a better quality of life!

Taken to the extreme, it’s easy to spend $30,000 in one lump sum to save a few hours a day, every day. That’s what I did after I discovered that I had more fun while working twice as fast, mixing in the analog domain. That hefty chunk of change bought me 64 channels of analog to digital and digital to analog converters, as well as analog summing mixers to euphoniously add up all the musical elements. It also bought me more time to spend hiking and cycling with my wife. I cannot overstate the fact that it is so easy to live an unbalanced life when you work in the record business. At my level, $30K was a small price to pay for facilitating balance in a fast paced, high pressure, high performance lifestyle.

Circling back to Thor, I mean Mark Scott, I can’t help but think about the power of purpose. Just as we audio professionals devoted countless hours to developing our craft, Mark powered his way across hundreds of thousands of miles to develop his. Create a good game plan, execute it, and reap the rewards. Excellence takes time, which is perhaps the scarcest commodity we possess. It is far too valuable to be wasted.

As an upbeat tangentially related thought, I’ll tell you a little bit about one of the guys in the photo below. Mark is obviously the cyclist winning the race, but the guy to the right of the photo is his teammate David Worthington, who also is a member of the rock band Dos Gatos. David is remarkable on many levels (poet, musician, geologist), but the attribute that I most admire is the fact that he is a fiercely loyal and devoted friend. Because of the inherent power connected to his sense of purpose, he was able to rally the entire Southern California cycling community to help Mark raise much needed medical funds. He’s been a spiritual teammate throughout the cancer battle, and he’s focusing on a positive instead of negative outcome.

David is the opposite of a fair weather friend: he’s a committed team player. If I should ever have the misfortune of being thrown in jail, Dave would be on the short list of folks I would call to bail me out— even though I rarely visit with him. I say this because of my experience mixing the Dos Gatos album with Dave. I noticed that he always made sure that everyone involved was comfortable and truly appreciated. That “empowerment” quality is extremely valuable to anyone who wants to succeed in the record biz. A rising tide makes all boats float higher.

Talk about dedication and commitment, Dave and his writing partner Eric Depperschmidt stuck together against all odds for 15 years to realize their dream of making an artistically pure album without any commercial considerations. They made the album they wished they could have bought from some other artist many years ago, but nobody ever made it—so they wrote and recorded it themselves. Now they can listen to it whenever they want. It’s not easily categorized Pop, but it’s really cool, especially for those who enjoy discovering new, under the radar, independent music. I’m especially fond of a song titled “Lupe.” Anyway, despite the long strange trip, Dave and Eric ticked another box on the Bucket List, and not a moment too soon. After all, every precious minute counts.

 

Champion racer Mark Scott (center) flanked by faithful lieutenant David Worthington (right) and Eric Depperschmidt of Dos Gatos.

 

StereoMonoizer, by Soundizers, is a huge time saver.

 

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.



So You Want To Be A Rekkid Producah!

Part 1: Yesterday 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2: Today


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

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

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

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

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

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

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