The Summer of #1

It’s not every day that I get to wake up and find out that one of my mixes has gone to number one on the pop charts. Even more rare is when it stays there for seven consecutive weeks to become the biggest pop radio hit of the summer of 2015 in Mexico.

I would like to have number ones more frequently. Who wouldn’t? A hit is good not only for the artist, but also for me and everyone else involved. Instead of clients asking me for a discount, they are simply asking for me.

I began contemplating some questions that might unlock the secret. Why did this stroke of good fortune happen to me? What did I do differently? How does this affect my daily life? What tips or advice can I give to my friends and fans so that they can get their own number ones?

I wish that this blog post could turn out to be a magic wand, life changing, master class in hit making, but ultimately it’s going to be one of my briefest, and perhaps most profound, posts so far.

The inside story is that I did absolutely nothing differently than I do for every other one of my mixes and artists. I simply asked the artist (Kalimba) and the producer (Stefano Vieni) what they wanted, then I wrapped my head and my heart around the song (“Estrellas Rotas“), and did my best to give the listener obvious focal points that would lead to an emotional connection to the song. If you’re really craving some technical details and mixing tips, SonicScoop featured me as their cover story this week: Making The Mix Room – Michael James  It’s worth the read.

I think that the reason that I got hired to do this job—and therefore had the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time—is because I treat every song as if it were truly important to the artist. Further, I try to mix every song in such a way that will make me actually feel something from it, even if it means that I will not necessarily impress my engineer friends. Nothing about the mix of “Estrellas Rotas” is over-the-top. It’s more about removing distractions that interfere with emotional resonance. (It doesn’t hurt that the artist is brilliant and the production is excellent!)

So, has this recent number one changed my life? In the short run, yes. There was a windfall of good press, and as mentioned earlier, new clients were more interested in working with me than negotiating with me. My equipment sponsors were happy that they got another “victory story” to exploit, that was genuine, honest and organic. My friends any family were happy that my work was being recognized internationally. My independent artist clients were happy that their mix engineer’s “buzz” could give them more credibility and some news for their social media feeds. Everybody was benefiting from the rising tide— all boats were floating higher.

In the long run, however, I am confident that things will settle down into the usual routine. It happens every time I’m involved with a hit: there’s a rush of excitement, then life returns to business as usual. That’s fine—I enjoy the high times, especially when they can be shared with my friends and family, but there is always plenty of work to be done and precious little time to rest on one’s laurels.

If you’re looking for some good advice, mine is is simple: Make the record that you want to make, not the one that you think somebody else wants to buy. Your fans will love you because you are you, not an emulator of somebody else.

Gratuitous picture of Rosie, with whom I mix many records.

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

Event details 

Mingle and Learn

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

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

Giving Back

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

Recording Gear

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

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

Rising Stars

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

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

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