If I were to ask my students to name an amazing producer or mix engineer, many would not be able to do it. Once upon a time, you sat in front of your stereo, unwrapped a freshly packaged vinyl album, cassette or CD and read all the credits while listening to a new masterpiece. For me this magical experience came in the form of Def Leppard and the album "Hysteria". I remember the day vividly as I sat in a dank, cold dorm room listening to this amazing sonic explosion coming out of my speakers - over and over. The album absolutely mesmerized and hypnotized me - so much so that it would stay in my CD player for three months. The album was played so much that my dorm mates would end up giving me a Golden Pear Award for the most likely person to work with Def Leppard in the future. As I was reading the credits inside the liner notes of this incredible album, the name Mike Shipley kept appearing. This was the day before internet and easy access, so you had to do some major investigating to find out about this magical mix engineer. I could go into Mike's long list of top artists that he produced and mixed, but you will have to do that on your own. His credits are truly amazing.
It is sad that we so quickly forget - or maybe don't care - about the people who make the industry "go 'round". If I said the name Lady Gaga many of you would instantly know and visualize the eccentric blonde haired bombshell with the wacky outfits. But if I were to say the name Zedd, who would know of the person I speak? He is Lady Gaga's producer - as in the person who makes her and her songs sound incredible. In this day of iTunes and quick downloads, most of us do not even care to take a look at the "people behind the people". Yet those of us in the industry, know and do care tremendously. So let me take a moment to care and talk about the late Mike Shipley.
Many times we view guys like Mike as being untouchable and unreachable because their accolades are so enormous that they wouldn't even bother talking to us "lowly engineers". Mike was not like that, and to the contrary, was very involved in the lives of us "lowly ones". He would post on the Gearslutz forums and share with us his engineering knowledge regularly. He would answer any question directed at him under the moniker "shipshape". I heard great stories from others about Mike mixing an indie album for a beer and some lamb chops. He was a man who cared more about the industry than money or prestige. His last video appearance, talking about his craft (you can view the video below), was on Pensado's Place where he gladly shared his wealth of knowledge with the rest of the engineering community. He was a giving person, not selfish in the least and was not in the industry for selfish ambition or promotion. He loved music and loved the people in the industry. He was always in his element behind the board - or at the producer's helm. He loved the people he worked with and the people loved him. On July 22nd, we lost this industry giant and amazing talent.
So, what can we learn from a man like Mike Shipley? Passion, excellence and humility. Passion for music and this awesome field of engineering. Excellence in the way he crafted each mix - sonically beautiful and pure. Humble in the truest sense of the word - family members weren't aware of projects he had been involved with. I want to encourage each person who reads this blog to go out and find out about the people who have worked on the albums you love - the "people behind the people". People like Mike.
Though Mike has passed, his music and productions will live on for years, decades and centuries to come. I am a testament to Mike's life. At the age of eighteen, I put on a Mike Shipley mixed album and heard sonic perfection. I decided at that point that I wanted to learn this craft and how to mix like the man who mixed that album. And so began my journey to become the next Mike Shipley. I may never win a mixing or production Grammy like Mike, but my life has been rich in attempting to hit the excellence mark of this man. May you now rest in peace, Mike. You will be missed by all.
I was reading an article recently that mentioned Bruce Springsteen not using any kind of track in his live performance. I then kept reading and found out that Bruce and the E Street Band plays 3 hours of material any given night. It was mind rattling, to say the least. I remember the 90's (yes, I lived through some great rock n' roll eras), and the start of the lip syncing phase. Does anybody out there remember Milli Vanilli? If so, do you remember how big of a news story it was when they were "busted" for lip syncing? It was scandalous "back then". So much for scandal when 99.9% of the artists now use tracks in their live shows. Oh we talk about it how tracks are not legit, and complain about it (to some extent) - but then shrug it off as "entertainment".
I want to just put it out there....the best shows are live shows where musicians are sweating over every note. Where musicians and singers are striving to hit every beat and every note the right way. Where the singers come off the stage exhausted, and the crowd leaves amazed. What we have been (and are) producing are lazy musicians under the guise of "entertainment". Who drives this mentality? Let me point one finger (though there are a few to point at various entities)....the big record companies. There was a time (I know when anyone starts with that it sounds "old skool" but who cares "old skool" was "good skool")....so, there was a time when record companies signed - get ready for it - talented musicians AND singers...GASP! Yes, you heard me right. Here is a question, and answer this truthfully, would Bruce Springsteen or a talented person like him get signed in 2012? I will answer that for you - no.
See, we have gone from an industry that use to sign talent to an industry that manufactures it based on looks, latest hair trends and clothing designs. Let me be clear, not ALL bands or singers are talentless. I will mention a name here - and do not string me up for saying it - Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga attended Julliard...and if you think that is an easy school to attend, then I would challenge anyone to attempt to get into it. Julliard students are high quality students who are serious about their craft. All of this to say, while we see some talent in the industry, sadly we see a lot of manufactured artists. Does the word Autotune mean anything? "What is Autotune?", you may ask. Basically in a nutshell, it is an engineer's tool that makes singers who can not sing, sound like they can. Nifty huh? For some artists they use it as an "effect" to make them sound "cool". For a lot of other artists they use it as a crutch because they can not sing.
I remember getting into quite a spirited discussion with a producer friend about the relevancy of Autotune, and its use as a professional tool. I am a musical purist. Yes, I have used Autotune on singers - but I loathe and dislike it tremendously. As a matter of fact, about 80% of the software tools out on the market I can not stand because they are being used to manipulate. My friend, on the other hand, was on the other end of the spectrum in regards to Autotune. He made a comment that it must a good thing since somebody made it. To me that logic is like saying cyanide must be OK to mix into your coffee since somebody made it. Just because we have a lame tool to make somebody, who shouldn't be singing, sound like they can, doesn't mean we should be using it...at all (hear me T-Pain. Go sell insurance). The record companies scratch their heads wondering why sales are going down, and then blame it on illegal digital downloading. That may be playing a small part in the decline, but I want to propose a new theory....your "talent" is talentless so start signing real talent again.
My cry here is bring back the real. Bring back the Springsteen's, Aerosmith's and the like. Please start signing more artists like Adele and bands that refuse to use tracks. Create a rule that if a band you signed starts using tracks then each of you get slapped up or your vacation gets taken away - or your dog has to be put into a shelter. For artists, learn how to play, learn how to sing and stop using lame backing tracks. Oh, and hire a new sound engineer. If the one you have can't make you sound great without using tracks, then find one that can (yes, I know this is all based on the fact the artist(s) can play and sing to begin with). It is time to reclaim our industry. So, let's start searching out great artists, and let us start a new kid of musical revolution. In the meantime, I am heading down to a coffee shop to enjoy a latte, bagel and real live musicians.
Kevin "Danger" Jackson is a New York-based producer, engineer, composer, performer, educator and Berklee College of Music alumnus. He writes, produces and engineers music for a wide range of artists in the pop, hip-hop, rock, R&B, classical and electronic genres. His work can be heard daily on a multitude of albums, radio and television stations worldwide.