“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!
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.
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.
What would you like to read about? Please send me any topics or questions that interest you. Thanks!
As much as I appreciate quality organic produce, I prefer to blather about creative pursuits, especially when related to the recording studio. Let’s make this blog a 2-way street with a steady stream of fresh ideas. Bring ’em on!